Paddy Ashdown pays tribute to Margaret Thatcher (and shows Nick how it’s done)

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2013

MPs in the Commons and peers in the Lords have been queuing up this afternoon to record their tributes to Margaret Thatcher, including both Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown.

To read both their tributes, please scroll down the page.

Nick’s come in for some stick on Twitter, mostly from right-wing MPs/journalists, for instance Mark Reckless and Sarah Wollaston; even the usually fair-minded Isabel Hardman of The Spectator called it “sour”. I’ve both read and watched Nick’s remarks and don’t buy that criticism at all.

But two things do strike me. First, it’s a very perfunctory speech. The only two personal comments he makes are a nod to his Sheffield constituency (“where the mere mention of her name even now elicits strong reactions”) and a rather glib aside about her infamous “there’s no such thing as society” quote (I say glib because there’s a lot more to the quote than that: disagree with it by all means, but recognise there was a context to it).

Secondly, and more disappointingly, it tells us nothing about Nick and his views on Margaret Thatcher. Yes, of course the tribute is about her, not him; but surely everyone who grew up in the 1980s has a view on what she got right and what she got wrong? What’s Nick’s? Instead, he squirms round it equivocally: she “elicits” strong views… “whether people liked or disliked her”“remember her with all the nuance, unresolved complexity and paradox that she possessed.” There is a studied, deliberate vagueness here. I want to know what Nick thought then; and what he really thinks now. I think the closest we probably get to that is his observation that “much of her politics was subtle and pragmatic”: that’s the aspect I suspect Nick admires.

That’s why those Clegg-critics who sniped at Nick’s tribute surprise me: there’s far too little of him in his speech, not too much.

If you think I’m being unfair, contrast Nick’s words with those of Paddy (also pasted below, though no video clip). They are personal, funny, warm, honest, (self-)critical, insightful, brilliant, and… surprising.

Paddy, after all, is a politician who unabashedly self-defines on the centre-left, yet he unambiguously praises her economic reforms: “aggressive liberalisation of the markets, stripping down the barriers to business and lowering taxation. In these things she was right at the time … At the time when she did those things, they needed to be done … she was without a doubt the commanding politician and the greatest Prime Minister of our age.” (Though he does include the caveat: “I suspect that revolution she started has perhaps somewhat run its course.”)

For many Lib Dems, such things won’t matter at all, I realise. Many of you will have grown bored with the Thatcher coverage. Others of you will sympathise with Nick Clegg trying to find polite things to say.

For myself I find this staged eulogisation within a recalled Parliament a distinctly odd exercise: MPs are there to debate and decide matters of national import, not feel compelled to offer up anecdote and op-ed reflection. So let me conclude with my own heartfelt tribute-question: can you imagine Mrs Thatcher wanting to sit through hours of MPs’ speeches?

Over to Paddy and Nick…

Paddy Ashdown

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon:
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend and I must say that I wholly agree with his conclusion. As the Leader said in opening, those of us whose paths crossed with hers all have our own personal anecdotes and remembrances about Margaret Thatcher. I have two. First, in a life that has, I suppose, had some small excitements, nothing that I have ever experienced so terrorised me as having to stand up as a young, inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears leader of my party to question her in the House of Commons when she was at the full plenitude of her powers, with the inevitable result that I would be ritually handbagged twice a week in front of the microphones of the nation. Thank God there was no television in the Chamber then. [Ahem, not quite: here’s one YouTube clip (begins at 30s).]

My second remembrance illustrates the point made by the Leader of the House about one of Lady Thatcher’s best qualities and most formidable weapons. My wife and I had been invited to one of those Downing Street events to mark the visit of some foreign leader; I honestly cannot remember exactly who it was. Afterwards, as we came down the stairs of No. 10, we met the Prime Minister coming up. My wife, who, I should explain, is much more rampantly left-wing than I am, hated her policies with a passion. The Prime Minister stopped and talked to us for a few moments. As she moved away, my wife hissed through gritted teeth, “She’s absolutely bloody charming, damn it”. So she was—to everyone, except of course those who happened to be in her Cabinet, as this row of wholly unextinct volcanoes sitting in front of me will no doubt attest.

This was only one of her many paradoxes. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, pointed out, she was not at all the straightforward, black and white, no-nonsense, unbending warrior leader that she latterly liked to portray. She knew, at least until the very end, when to compromise and did so, perhaps most significantly when, although relishing her anti-Europeanism, she nevertheless signed Britain up to the single European market.

In my view, three qualities set her apart as something different but each of them had its drawbacks. The first was a passionate commitment to freedom. As a Liberal, needless to say, I mostly welcomed that, although perhaps not as much as I should have at the time. Later, in Bosnia, when I tried to get a stagnant economy moving, I found myself putting into practice many of the very things that I had opposed when she introduced them: aggressive liberalisation of the markets, stripping down the barriers to business and lowering taxation. In these things she was right at the time, even if today we find that, taken to excess, some of these attributes have not led to greater prosperity for all but to near ruin and a disgusting climate of greed for the few. In this, I suspect that revolution she started has perhaps somewhat run its course. Our challenge today is to find a kinder, less destructive, more balanced way of shaping our economy, but that is today. At the time when she did those things, they needed to be done.

However, her belief in freedom was, one might say, strangely partial. She did much to enhance individual economic freedom, and our country was much the better for it, but she did far less to enhance the political freedoms of, for instance, the gay community or the people of Scotland, or perhaps most markedly and paradoxically—and this has been commented on, too—the standing of women in society. She was—and arguably, given the context at the time, this was one of her very greatest achievements—Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. However, her influence and power came not from the exercise of the female principles in politics but from the fact that she was far better than any man at the male ones.

Her second defining quality was her patriotism. David Cameron, the present Prime Minister, recently called her the “patriot Prime Minister”. It is a good phrase and an apposite one. However, her patriotism too, though so powerfully held and expressed, was more about the preservation and restoration of Britain’s past position than it was about preparing us for the challenges of what came next. She used her formidable talents to give our country a few more years of glory, and for that we should be eternally grateful. However, that legacy means that Britain today still finds itself uncomfortable and undecided about its true position in the world, not least in relation to Europe, where the infection that she planted still has the capacity to rip apart her party. There can be no doubt that she restored our country’s position in the world but in a way that perhaps today makes us even less able to answer Dean Acheson’s famous challenge that, having lost an empire, we have yet to find a role.

Her final triumphant quality was of course her courage. This, I think, is the pre-eminent quality of leadership and she had it in abundance. Yet this, too—her greatest asset—had its dangers. I used to have a principle in distant, more robust days that I would never take on operations anyone who was not at least as frightened as I was, but she was frightened of nothing. She could see the risks but she ignored them if she believed she was right, and paradoxically this, in the final analysis, was what ended her long term as Prime Minister. Is it not always hubris that gets us in the end?

She was complex, extraordinary, magnificent, fallible, flawed and infuriating. One thing, however, is certain and cannot be denied except by those so sunk in bitterness that they will not see: she won great victories for what she stood for at home and huge respect for our country abroad. If politics is defined—and I think it can be—by principles, the courage to hold to them and the ability to drive them through to success, then she was without a doubt the commanding politician and the greatest Prime Minister of our age.

(Watch Nick Clegg’s tribute on YouTube here.)

clegg on leveson 2

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg):
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I would like to pay tribute to Lady Thatcher. We send our sincere condolences to her family and friends, in particular to her children, Mark and Carol.

Like all of us who are not members of the Conservative party and who disagreed with many of the things that Margaret Thatcher did, I have thought long and hard about what to say. I am a Sheffield MP—a city where the mere mention of her name even now elicits strong reactions. I would like to think that she would be pleased that she still provokes trepidation and uncertainty among the leaders of other parties, even when she is not here, eyeballing us across the House. That those of us who are not from her party can shun the tenets of Thatcherism and yet respect Margaret Thatcher is part of what was so remarkable about her. It is in that spirit that I would like to make three short observations.

First, whether people liked or disliked her, it is impossible to deny the indelible imprint that Margaret Thatcher made on the nation and the wider world. She was among those very rare leaders who become a towering historical figure not as written in the history books, but while still in the prime of their political life. Whatever else is said about her, Margaret Thatcher created a paradigm. She set the parameters of economic, political and social debate for decades to come. She drew the lines on the political map that we are still navigating today.

Secondly, Margaret Thatcher was one of the most caricatured figures in modern British politics, yet she was easily one of the most complex. On the one hand, she is remembered as the eponymous ideologue, responsible for her own “-ism”. In reality, much of her politics was subtle and pragmatic, and she was sometimes driven by events. Margaret Thatcher was a staunch patriot who was much more comfortable reaching out across the Atlantic than across the channel. However, she participated in one of the most profound periods of European integration and was herself an architect of the single market. Although she was a Conservative to her core, leading a party that traditionally likes to conserve things, she held a deep aversion to the status quo. She was restive about the future, determined to use politics as a force for reform and never feared short-term disruption in pursuit of long-term change. In many ways a traditionalist, she was one of the most iconoclastic politicians of our age.

Margaret Thatcher was therefore far from the cardboard cut-out that is sometimes imagined. For me, the best tribute to her is not to consign her to being a simplified heroine or villain, but to remember her with all the nuance, unresolved complexity and paradox that she possessed.

Finally, there was an extraordinary, even unsettling directness about her political presence. I remember vividly, aged 20, reading that Margaret Thatcher had said that there was no such thing as society. I was dismayed. It was not the kind of thing that a wide-eyed, idealistic social anthropology undergraduate wanted to hear. With hindsight, what strikes me is that although I disagreed with the untempered individualism that those words implied, I never for a second thought that she was being cynical, striking a pose or taking a position for short-term effect.

You always knew, with Margaret Thatcher, that she believed what she said. It is interesting to reflect on how she would have reacted to today’s political culture of 24-hour news, pollsters and focus groups. She seemed blissfully indifferent to the popularity of what she said, entirely driven instead by the conviction of what she said. Somehow, her directness made you feel as if she were arguing directly with you—as if it were a clash of her convictions against yours. As a result, you somehow felt as if you knew her, even if you did not.

Whether she inspired or confronted, led or attacked, she did it all with uncluttered clarity. Her memory will no doubt continue to divide opinion and stir deep emotion, but as we as a nation say farewell to a figure who loomed so large, one thing is for sure: the memory of her will continue undimmed, strong and clear for years to come, in keeping with the unusual, unique character of Margaret Thatcher herself.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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