Skip to content

Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is assured but we should be wary of succumbing to the legend of Thatcherism

Image from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation

Huge controversy exists over whether Margaret Thatcher deserves to be buried with full military honours, an accolade awarded to her hero Winston Churchill on his death in 1965. Critics argue that her achievements didn’t match Churchill’s of saving the nation from Nazi tyranny.

And yet Margaret Thatcher was the only British Prime Minister to give her name to an ‘ism’. Like her or loathe her, her legacy is assured not only in this country, but across the world. The economic revolution she set in train across the world in terms of deregulation, privatisation and free trade still lives with us today.

Politically, Thatcher’s inheritance from Labour’s James Callaghan was dire. Britain had become the lame duck of Europe, in hock to the trade unions, whose militant leaders had paralysed the economy with crippling strikes. Through her total victory over Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers in 1985, Thatcher broke the trade union movement for a generation, successfully expunging the humiliation that her Tory predecessor Edward Heath had suffered at the hands of the miners in 1972. Although her Cabinet were divided early on between ‘Wets’ and ‘Dries’, even the most soggy wet accepted the need to curb the power of the unions.

Thatcher’s greatest achievement was to create a nation of homeowners through her ‘right to buy’ policy. The political gain from giving ordinary people the chance to own their own homes was like gold dust, and created a loyal band of supporters up and down the suburbs of Tory England. But the policy also showed how hugely contradictory Thatcher could be. For years, she supported mortgage interest rate relief for first-time buyers, a straight subsidy, going directly against her belief in free markets. An exception needed to be made in this case because they were ‘her people’.

Thatcher’s achievements as a successful female politician now seem more important now than they did back in the 1980s. She was part of the grammar school generation of Tory leaders, which had started with Edward Heath, who broke down class barriers in the Conservative Party. Thatcher had no time for posh, effete Tories who sported their old school ties. It would do the present Conservative hierarchy good to be reminded of that fact today.

However, we should be wary of succumbing to the legend of Thatcherism. Lionising Thatcher ignores her early caution. A pay dispute with the steel strikers was settled in humiliating fashion, while the teachers’ pay award was settled in full. Nor was there any master plan for privatisation: it simply developed on an ad hoc basis. It was only after the Falklands victory in 1982 that Thatcher fully gained her self-confidence in foreign affairs. Few people remember Thatcher’s decision in 1980, against her gut instincts, to grant Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) independence. At that stage, she had to give way in the face of pressure from the Commonwealth, her Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, and indeed the Queen.

A pattern developed where, as Douglas Hurd puts it, Thatcher argued, then signed up to things, often against her initial instincts. So, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, despite being a natural Unionist. The same year, she signed the Single European Act, creating the single market, despite her gut euroscepticism. Thatcher’s regret over supporting European integration was shown most starkly in her famous Bruges Speech in 1988, in which she attacked the emerging European ‘super-state’, overlooking her part in its creation.

For every person who admired her strong leadership, there were equal numbers who complained about Thatcher’s increasingly dictatorial style and her growing disregard for Cabinet Government. During the Westland Affair in 1986, it was partly a temporary reassertion of Cabinet government that saved her bacon when senior ministers concocted her statement to the House of Commons. As she famously remarked, she didn’t think she would be Prime Minister by six o’clock that night. Neil Kinnock’s typically blundering performance saw to that.

The episode showed that Thatcher was a rather lucky Prime Minister, not least in facing two ineffectual Labour leaders in the shape of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. She was also lucky in that the Labour Party was bitterly split at the beginning of her premiership, especially after the SDP breakaway in 1981.  It was all the more fortuitous that Thatcher’s two main enemies – General Galtieri in Argentina and Arthur Scargill at home – were even more intransigent than she was.

Inevitably, Thatcher’s luck ran out. It was almost inevitable given her confrontational style that she would go out with a bang and not with a whimper. In the same way that most Americans remember where they were when President John F Kennedy was shot in 1963, so most Britons of a certain generation can recall what they were doing when Mrs Thatcher resigned from office in 1990. The parallels are all the more amazing when one considers that by an accident of history both events occurred on the same date in the calendar: 22 November.

But there is no denying Thatcher’s greatness. Even someone as left-wing as Tony Benn acknowledged Thatcher’s greatness in the sense that she knew what she wanted to do with power and carried in out to ruthless effect. For Benn, politicians are either signposts or weathercocks. Thatcher was the former, always making the political weather. In fact, she was more a force of nature, a tornado of a politician, who would sweep past leaving her mark wherever she went. In that sense, she was the complete opposite to the mild-mannered Clement Attlee.

Comparisons with Attlee are apt. Both Thatcher and Attlee left their mark on the political and economic landscape of Britain. While Attlee played a key role in creating the post-war consensus, based around the welfare state, Thatcher began the process of dismantling it. Whatever one’s political views, both Attlee and Thatcher deserve roughly equal billing as the top post-war Prime Minister.

Mark Stuart


Published inBritish Politics


  1. Geoff Pye Geoff Pye

    I agree with the stress on Mrs. Thatcher’s earlier pragmatic approach. And what about trying some counterfactual history. What would have happened if there had been no Thatcher administrations? How long would it have been before the expensive coal produced by the British deep-mines was given up in favour of cheaper imported products from Russia, Poland and South Africa. Let’s not forget that when Mrs. Thatcher left office there were still about 16 deep mines in the UK: now there are just three!

    The print workers – another alleged victim of Mrs. Thatcher – were surely defeated more by the gradual of introduction into the provincial press of new, computer-based technology, rather than by anti-union legislation. The skilled compositors, linotype operators and process workers of the “hot metal” era were now no longer needed, no more than handloom weavers had been after the invention of power-looms, and could easily be replaced at places like Rupert Murdoch’s Wapping by semi-skilled workers needing perhaps a week’s training.

    And I’m sure it wouldn’t have been long, given the rise of global capitalism, before some cash-strapped administration had decided to open the piggy bank that the government had through its ownership of the telephone network, gas works, logistics businesses and defence contractors.

    So I think we should be careful of adopting a “Little England” attitude, looking at Mrs. Thatcher without reference to the wider world: to globalisation and the development of computer-based technology. Or to trends already set in train by Edward Heath, who had already advocated a “right-to-buy” scheme, had opened up the airwaves to commercial radio companies in 1973, and had stressed that state ownership of Rolls Royce was going to be a temporary measure.

  2. Phil Phil

    I enjoyed this article but am slightly perplexed by one statement – like the Economist, you claim that Thatcher was the only Prime Minister to give birth to an -ism. What about Tony Blair and Blairism?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.