When the Conservative Party matricides saw best to stab Thatcher in the back, the United Kingdom was a country transformed, holding its head high in the world
Abraham Lincoln formulated the inevitable pitfall awaiting those who seek high office, when he said that the adulation heaped upon someone gaining it was never repeated on their leaving it. Margaret Thatcher is the absolute study in this enduring fact of political life.
But just as he was shot from the back at the theatre by one who disagreed with him, she was stabbed in the back in the Mother of all Parliaments, not by her enemies, whom she had crippled with their own short-sightedness, but by her own Cabinet.
Britain in 1979 was bust, as bust as bust could be. The Heath-Wilson era was a fiasco, a disaster. The trade unions ran the country: the NUM controlled the economy’s energy; Red Robbo was destroying the car industry; the dockers controlled the ports; and ASLEF was in charge of making sure British Rail was running late, if and when it ran at all.
Heath had asked: ‘Who is governing Britain?’ The answer was loud and clear: ‘Not you!’
And then came their worthy successor, the dithering Callaghan, who saw in the IMF and switched off the lights, as the uncleared rubbish and unburied bodies came to symbolise the total failure of the 1970s. Britain was a laughing-stock, hopeless, with her reputation in tatters, a nation with no immediate future and no discernible long-term prospects – and no leadership worthy of the name.
The stab in the back
A decade later, in 1990, when the Conservative Party matricides saw best to stab Thatcher in the back – a blow from which the Party has never fully or really recovered ever since – the United Kingdom was a country transformed, holding its head high in the world, and a leading G7 economy, once again.
The Special Relationship with America was back on track, as a result of the extra-special relationship between Thatcher and Reagan, and hers with Mikhail Gorbachev, as together they brought down Communism, a busted flush itself, and brought the Cold War and the Soviet era in the USSR to a decisive finish. Thatcher was indeed a champion of freedom across the world, because she was its champion and won her battles in her own land first.
And this most unlikely recovery and transformation of Britain was the greatest achievement of a peacetime politician in our long and illustrious history – thanks entirely to Maggie. No one else can claim even to have played a major part in this transformation, as they only played supporting roles.
The most important supporter, surprisingly, was perhaps her close adviser Willie Whitelaw, old Oyster Eyes, but her strong backbone was Norman Tebbit the Rottweiler, along with Geoffrey Howe and Nicholas Ridley, as the architects of the tough 1981 Medium Term Financial Strategy, that killed off the rampant inflation of the ’70s, which she inherited at 22 per cent pa, and set the stage for the 1980s’ economic revival.
But it was Maggie who did it – she and her hand-bag, supported throughout by her loyal husband Denis, who famously said: ‘Better keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt.’
Transforming the Tories
First, however, she had to transform the Tory Party itself, as she ruthlessly swung her hand bag and KO’d all the usual old deadbeats, in a process where she let her Cabinet hang out to dry: Jim Prior the Old Fogey, Francis Pym the Slimeball, Ian Gilmour the Spineless, Charlie Morrison the Buffoon, Carrington who excused himself gracefully, et al.
Then she tackled the Unions with new and effective legislation which democratised the shop floor and outlawed wildcat strikes, saw off Galtieri’s attempted seizure of the Falklands (pictured below), faced down Scargill in the 1984 Miners’ Strike (pictured above).
After that, she set about the long overdue dismantling of government’s visionless, ineffective, decision-dithering, behind-the-curve, untalented, bureaucratic control of whole swathes of British industry: British Gas; the National Grid and the electricity supply companies; the water companies; old British Leyland and Jaguar and Rover; Rolls-Royce; British Airways; British Telecom; British Shipbuilders; British Steel; the buses; certain ports; and airports and air traffic control; council houses; BNOC and North Sea oil licences.
And the building societies were demutualised and floated off as joint-stock banks, if their members so voted for it, and the restrictions on bank-lending, and exchange controls, were all dumped in the dustbin of time, and soon taxes were massively reduced, from 83 per cent to 40 per cent.
Privatisation, an idea worked up by three young men in the Treasury in the early-1970s, led by David Howell, later Thatcher’s Transport minister, was offered as a policy option to Heath. He flunked it. Thatcher seized it. Streetwise Sid was now a capitalist. Sid and Doris owned their own ex-council house in Neasden.
Surviving New Labour
Workforces were incentivised and the trade union power-base was smashed. Britain was once again set to become an economic power-house. So great were the structural changes wrought by her transformation, that they largely survived the thirteen back-peddling, bankrupting years of so-called New Labour.
Thatcher is said to have been divisive: she had to be, if she was ever going to cut away all the dead wood. If she hadn’t been divisive, she wouldn’t have been decisive.
Politics has no gauge which you can pre-set to limit the effect of a particular political thrust or policy at a pre-determined set point – and hence the Law of Unintended Consequences that governs all political careers. Politics may be the art of the possible, but Thatcher achieved what looked at the time as the impossible.
There are three popular criticisms levied at Thatcher:
> She sank the Belgrano: why ever not, in a time of war?
> She destroyed the coal and other industries: no, they had destroyed themselves, she just bulldozed away the remains and cleared the ground for new industries with a future. (The seams of the deep-mine coal industry, as exemplified by the biggest mine in all Europe at Hem Heath, were exhausted anyway.) Industrial production actually went from a declining 5 per cent from 1973-79, when she came to office, to a rising 12 per cent by 1989.
> She did not believe in society: she did, as long as it began with people standing on their own two feet. Unfortunately, her share of the Law of Unintended Consequences – for she exemplified hard work and thrift – was the spawning of the overlong Greedy Decade, that ended in spectacular bust in 2008, twenty years after she was gone.
There are other more pertinent criticisms: she over-centralised government in Whitehall; she alienated the Scots, and everyone else, with her daft idea of a Poll Tax; her NHS reforms were unhelpful, and she never got to grips with its oversized problems; she failed to continue privatisation – Royal Mail, the Post Office and Parcel Service, the DEA/Qinetiq etc – and outsourcing, as with prisoner relocation outsourcing.
Her expenditure reductions left the public sector at 42 per cent of GDP, which was still too high, and she veered off course after 1987 in her third term.
But she had got the headline issues right early on. And she was right on the European Community/single currency issue too. The matricides were simply wrong on this key issue, which was her downfall, as we all can now see only too clearly.
I met her several times, and we usually shared a giggle together, but the last time was serious in the crypt of St Paul’s, when she was standing all alone at the celebrations of my friend Sergei Chepik’s new murals for the cathedral, as he had painted her portrait in 1991.
She asked me who were in the two sarcophagi there, and why were they such different sizes? ‘The smaller one nearer the altar end is the Duke of Wellington, who was a very small man physically,’ I replied. ‘The larger is for Admiral Lord Nelson, and his body was even smaller, but it was pickled for the return voyage from his victorious death at Trafalgar, and thus his corpse swelled to nearly three times its natural size.’
She looked at them with great interest and muttered, ‘Every nation needs its heroes!’
A fitting funeral
It is thus fitting that she will have her ceremonial funeral, attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh and world leaders, above these two memorials for former heroes, in the first cathedral of the Church of England, a church to which her upbringing had welded her faith.
Thank God for Margaret Thatcher – she saved our nation in peacetime as surely as Wellington, Nelson and Churchill saved it in wartime. The late Baroness Thatcher did her duty, unflinchingly, and will rightly stand, without apology and for all recorded time, in the pantheon of the great.