from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation
Baroness Margaret Thatcher has died. Her spokesman, Lord Bell, made the announcement, saying “It is with great sadness that Mark and Carol Thatcher announced that their mother Baroness Thatcher died peacefully following a stroke this morning.”
Love her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher could not be ignored. Her death at the age of 87 was not entirely unexpected. Some will mourn her passing; many, in Scotland at least, will not. As the Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, her name here will always be associated with the much hated “Poll Tax”, with her “Sermon on the Mound” and her claim there was “no such thing as society”. She’ll be remembered as well for the Falklands War, the miners’ strike and the closure of many traditional Scottish industries. Some parts of the country have not yet recovered. And yet, one could equally argue that modern Scotland could not have existed without those changes. Like her or not, she was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Her legacy had a profound effect not just on her own party but on others as well. Some claim that Tony Blair modelled his leader style upon hers (is he any more loved or respected?). What she brought to No.10 was a radical and indeed often confrontational approach to policy. She oversaw major changes in the way the UK was managed. She wanted a home-owning, share-owning democracy; that lead to thousands of ordinary people buying their council houses and shares in newly privatised companies such as British Gas and BT. But after the post-war decades when consensus politics were the order of the day, she turned her back on that shared vision. Her methods led to unrest on the streets and eventually rebellion inside her own party.
Margaret Thatcher served three terms as prime minister. When first elected, she made it quickly clear that she saw it as her main task to repair the country’s finances. She took over after years of crises — the 3-day week, the “Winter of Discontent”, the need for help from the IMF to prevent the economy collapsing. For the new Prime Minister, reform meant cutting back the state and boosting the free market. With her then Secretary of State for Industry, Keith Joseph, she introduced monetary policies that turned the City of London into one of the most vibrant and successful financial centres in the world at that time. But the downside was the Government’s assault on old-style manufacturing, rapidly running it down in the effort to create a newly competitive country. The result: unemployment rose above three million.
This led to considerable disquiet among parts of the Conservative party. Those so-called “wets” used the riots in some inner city areas to try and pressure Margaret Thatcher to modify her policies. But in her now famous phrase from the 1980 party conference: “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to… the lady’s not for turning.”
For a time, her rating in the opinion polls fell to just 25%, the lowest recorded for any prime minister until that time. But as the economy began to recover, her own popularity at least in the English shires began to recover as well. And it received yet another boost when she decided to respond with military action to take back the Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion. This decisive action was popular — but the sinking of the Argentine Warship General Belgrano with the loss of 323 lives left a bad feeling in many people’s minds, not least the Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, who repeatedly asked awkward questions about the attack for years after.
Her second term, in which she led the Tories to victory over Labour led by Michael Foot, was dominated by the miners’ strike. In the spring of 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers walked out, despite its failure to ballot its members. The Conservative Government still had raw memories of a previous strike in 1973 when the miners faced down the administration of Edward Heath. This time, there were substantial stocks of coal in place at power stations which meant there would be no repeat of the cuts in electricity. As a reporter with the BBC at the time, I witnessed some of the brutal clashes between pickets and police. But this time, the Government not the NUM emerged victorious when the strike collapsed. Many communities particularly in Scotland never recovered.
If we remember one thing from her third and final term, it was the “Poll Tax”. Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party was still riven by years of in-fighting. The Tories may have suffered in Scotland with a slump in support; but in England Mrs Thatcher retained her influence and won the election. One of her first actions was to introduce “community charge”, a flat-rate local tax to replace the rates. It taxed individuals rather than the property in which they lived. It was introduced first in Scotland and proved immediately unpopular; but when it eventually was also brought in south of the border, it sparked some of the worst street violence in living memory.
Thatcher survived opposition to this policy — and indeed succeeded in holding on to power for over ten years. But there was one issue which has caused problems for both Labour and Conservatives over the years, one which, eventually, caused her downfall — Europe. Following one of the regular EU summits, she outraged even some of her own colleagues with her intransigence. Her comments at the time have again gone into the history books: “The President of the Commission, Monsieur Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.”
The man who delivered the coup de grace was a one-time former ally, Sir Geoffrey Howe. The former foreign secretary had been harbouring simmering resentment after Thatcher took that office away from him. He quit the cabinet and delivered a devastating resignation speech in which he attacked the Prime Minister for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country. The speech is perhaps best remembered for his cricketing simile for British negotiations on European Monetary Union. “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease,” he told the Commons, “only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. He called on others to “consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long”.
The following day, Michael Heseltine threw his hat into the ring. In the poll of MPs which followed, he fell just two votes short of preventing the contest going to a second round. Margaret Thatcher tried to fight on but was eventually told by close colleagues, the famous “men in grey suits,” that she would lose. She announced her resignation at the next cabinet meeting, shedding a few tears as she later left Downing Street for the last time. She later described what happened as “treachery with a smile on its face.”
I interviewed Margaret Thatcher twice. I remember that, before the tape recorder was switched on, she was, like most politicians, perfectly reasonable. But press the “record” button and her personality, even her voice, seemed to change. It was almost as if I had met Margaret Thatcher the person and Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister, two people in one body. Now that body is to be accorded a State Funeral similar to that of Princess Diana. Her enemies will resent that honour — but will watch if only to make sure she’s gone. Her supporters will think it only right after all that she did for the country. After all, even her critics admit that she changed the the United Kingdom for ever.
There are some who believe that her attitude to Scotland may have fueled the growth of the SNP’s popularity. Today, Scottish politicians have paid tribute to her, with First Minister, Alex Salmond, describing her as “truly formidable”. He went on to say the former Conservative leader’s policies had “defined a political generation” for many people in Scotland. “No doubt there will now be a renewed debate about the impact of that legacy. Today, however, the proper reaction should be respect and condolences to her family.”
The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, insisted that Baroness Thatcher had been “one of the truly great Prime Ministers”. She added that, as Prime Minister, “she defended Britain’s sovereignty, helped win the cold war, empowered thousands to own their own home by democratising property ownership and smashed the glass ceiling. My thoughts are with her family.”
The current Prime Minister David Cameron, called her a “great Briton” and the Queen spoke of her sadness at the death.