Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Remembering Margaret Thatcher

It appears that as in life Margaret Thatcher in death is dividing and polarising people.

However as a child of the 60s who even now remembers:

  • Callaghan's devaluation of the pound in Nov 1967 
  • the disastrous 1970s with all its industrial strife, pay and incomes policies, statutory price controls, the 3 day week, the oil price shock, inflation, the two elections in 1974,  beer and sandwiches at number 10, the doubts about Wilson and Marcia - let alone whether he was a KGB spy,  going 'cap-in-hand' to the IMF, the Lib-Lab pact, the winter of discontent etc
I am truly grateful that she put the 'Great' back into Britain.

She took a declining country, a country that was the laughing stock of the civilised world, the 'sick-man of Europe' and gave us back our pride and our standing.  She gave us optimism, no-nonsense economics and emphasised the importance of free markets and self-reliance.  She wanted us all to be property owners - thereby instilling pride and self-belief.

It wasn't a pain free transition.  I vividly remember the business closures, the unemployment and strife of the early 1980s and wondering what nation I was growing up in.  I remember being profoundly shocked that we went to war in 1982 - and fearing the casualties that the nightly news would bring.

As someone growing up in Liverpool I saw the tensions first hand both with the riots and with militant.  Neil Kinnock's great speech about militant and the scandal of a Labour council scurrying round serving redundancy notices to its own staff applied to my family.  My father was a head teacher and my mother was a teacher.  My father told me quite recently about the scandalous conduct of council officers who called the head teachers to a meeting - and then kept them waiting doing nothing whilst the taxis delivered the redundancy notices.

Margaret Thatcher never hid from controversy.  Many remain bitter that she referred to some as 'the enemy within.'  However when I reflect on my early career as a lawyer in local government I do believe she had a point.  In the late 1980s local government was hit with a barrage of legislation all seeking to make it more open and transparent - open to competitive tender - moving it towards the enabling role we see for it today.  As a young lawyer who believed in the rule of law I remember being scandalised by the attitude shown by council officers who sought every opportunity to subvert the government's will and work around the legislation rather than honouring it.  It did teach me to be a good 'statute lawyer' though!

Throughout this period there was the underlying tension and stress of the cold war.  After Labour's unilateral disarmament manifesto - 'the longest suicide note in history' I certainly felt that it was only the Conservatives that could be trusted with the defence of the nation at that time.  I find it interesting listening to her obituaries that she was more comfortable with the nuclear deterrent than President Gorbachev!  I am relieved on both counts.

Listening to her voice now - it puts a smile on my face.  History has proved her right in so many ways.  At the time I thought her medicine was too strong.  In her terms I would have been either 'wet' or 'semi-detached' but through the prism of history I reflect that she was more right than wrong.  She had a certainty of vision that most of us could only dream about.

Of course this had down sides.  Her increasingly imperial vocabulary 'Rejoice,' 'We are a Grand-mother' unnecessarily increased the animosity towards her.  This approach led her into error with the 'Poll Tax' - where her instinctive political sense let her down - although who could complain about making sure that those who benefited from local services also paid for them as a theory.

I gather she claimed in recent years that her greatest legacy was 'Tony Blair.'  If by that she meant moving the centre ground of British politics to the right then I would agree.  I think history will be less kind to Tony Blair than it is will be to Margaret Thatcher however. We pretty much have a national consensus that Thatcherite economics is the way to go - both here and abroad.  Labour only became electable when it moved to the right.

And when you reflect on the mess of the Euro and the debt burdens the obvious simplicity of her 'sound money' policy makes sense - if only those that followed had stuck to her path.

It is a remarkable feeling as someone still in his 40s to think that with Margaret Thatcher's passing I have almost certainly lived to see the death of Britain's greatest peace time Prime Minister.