Mrs T’s political life: a tryptych from three of the best articles I’ve read today

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2013

I’ve read a lot of what’s been written about Margaret Thatcher in the past 24 hours. Here’s Mrs T’s political life, times and legacy summed up in excerpts from three of the best articles (ie, the ones I agree with most):

Simon Jenkins on Mrs T’s rise to power…

Almost everything said of Thatcher’s early years was untrue, partly through her own invention. She was the daughter of a prosperous civic leader who merely began life as a “grocer”. She went to a fee-paying school and to Oxford at her father’s expense, gliding easily into the upper echelons of student politics.

A Tory party desperate for women helped Thatcher through the political foothills to early success as an MP. Her gender led her into government and the shadow cabinet, despite Edward Heath’s aversion to her. It made her virtually unsackable as education secretary. As she said in her memoirs: “There was no one else.” When Heath fell, her promoters ran her as a stalking horse because, as a woman, they thought she could not win. Thatcher became prime minister because she was a woman, not despite it.

As leader she was initially hyper-cautious. An unclubbable outsider, she allied herself to another outsider, Keith Joseph, and his free-market set. But she regarded rightwing causes as an intellectual hobby. She was an ardent pro-European, and her 1979 manifesto made no mention of radical union reform or privatisation. It was thoroughly “wet”. On taking office she showered money on public sector unions, and her “cuts” were only to planned increases, mild compared with today’s.

Margaret Thatcher: pro-European ‘wet’ transformed by a triumphant war (Guardian)

Steve Richards on Mrs T’s policies and personality…

In terms of policy, she was often simplistically superficial, rarely looking beyond immediate consequences. She showed no interest in building more affordable rented homes after the popular sale of council homes. She defeated the miners but gave little thought to reviving the wrecked communities left behind, thoughtlessness recently regretted by her otherwise great admirer Norman Tebbit. She abolished the Labour run GLC and other Labour controlled metropolitan councils but left big cities with no form of accountable government, an act of centralisation almost unique in the Western world. She hailed the light regulation of the banks without worrying very much about what would happen if the banks did not behave responsibly. The poll tax was an alternative to the old, unpopular local rates, but she did not see that a flat rate, which took no account of means to pay, would be far more unpopular, not least with her own supporters. The Conservatives have never recovered in Scotland and the impact on a previously ultra-loyal local government base in England has been long lasting, giving angry Tory activists a taste for speaking their minds that they have never lost.

But the deepening myths around Mrs Thatcher are not connected with policies. These have always been famously contentious. They are around style and play down the political context that was at least as important as her personality. She was “strong” partly because, unlike most prime ministers, she had the chance to be. In the 1980s, Labour had become unelectable. For that reason, she would have won a landslide in 1983 without the Falklands War that had taken place the year before. The Falklands heightened her reputation as an Iron Lady, but she had no choice other than to respond militarily to the Argentinian takeover. The alternative to war was her resignation. The invasion was not an act of awesome boldness but expedient survival. More widely, she could also be very nervous behind the scenes, so neurotically worried for example about calling the 1983 election against Michael Foot that she constantly sought excuses to postpone the campaign. She was human.

The mark of Thatcher’s success was how she forced her every enemy to change (Independent)

Tim Bale on Mrs T’s legacy…

Before Margaret Thatcher, the Tories were a self-consciously non-ideological outfit. True, they had a common-sense understanding that, wherever possible, the market should be left to get on with what it did best and that Britain should act at all times in its national interest. But within that framework, the party left itself maximum room for manoeuvre, happy to let its opponents tie themselves up in knots trying to remain true to doctrine.

Margaret Thatcher was different. Although she could be pragmatic – at least in the beginning – she nevertheless believed in, indeed tried to personify, eternal truths. She regarded her opponents as enemies, even set tests of faith to establish who was ‘one of us’. In so doing she turned her party turned from a broad church into something closer to a sect, some of whose members equate compromise with weakness and modernisation with betrayal. She also, especially after she lost power, elevated one particular aspect of policy – this post-imperial island nation’s inevitably fraught relationship with the EU – into an over-riding obsession. Similarly, the simplicity and supposed success of her economic policies has arguably trapped her successors into thinking that there is no alternative, even when perhaps – just perhaps – there might be.

To borrow from the words that one of the Conservative Party’s greatest leaders, Stanley Baldwin, once used to describe his Liberal rival David Lloyd George, Margaret Thatcher was ‘a dynamic force’ – perhaps the greatest such force ever seen in post-war British politics. However, as Baldwin went on to warn his colleagues, ‘A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you but it is not necessarily right.’

Margaret Thatcher. The success she brought the Conservatives also sowed the seeds of failure (Conservative Home)