Before I get onto my subject, I ought to say a few words as to how and why I got to it in the first place. I was listening to the Radio 4 Today programme a few days back, when there was a lively discussion between two eminent historians about how good / effective Winston Churchill was as a British Prime Minister. Opinions were divided: one cited numerous, significant errors of judgement he made and the other argued they were either not errors at all or not all that significant, and his role as an inspirational War time leader more than balanced out all his shortcomings. While I would tend to go more with the latter view, I was mindful of one of the negative examples (not cited it turned out) that my grandfather used to refer to. When it came to how the government of the day dealt with the 1926 General Strike, Churchill was clearly against the strikers and had little empathy with their legitimate grievances.
This then got me thinking about all the Prime ministers in my own lifetime, many of whose careers I have followed with interest, and their respective contributions at the time and the legacies they left, bearing in mind the times they operated in were different to the present (although maybe not so different), as were the issues that occupied peoples’ attention. Despite what we may be led to believe, their room to manoeuvre was often limited, yet enough room still to make some difference. If circumstances were different, I would like to write a book reflecting on this subject. For this post, however, I will refer mainly to my own memories, anecdotes and impressions that have built up over the years. While Churchill might well carry the mantle of greatness, his heyday was before my time and the only real memory I have is of his funeral and what others said.
Of the Prime Ministers, the two stand out ones, by some way as far as I am concerned, were Harold Wilson (“yer darling bleedin Harold” – to quote Alf Garnett) and the Iron lady who was not for turning, Margaret Thatcher. Regarding Harold Wilson, he was my political hero in my early years, for it was he that got me enthused about politics and thinking about social justice more than any, and encouraged me while in my mid-teens to become a Labour activist. Ideologically, Wilson and Thatcher were poles apart but they did both came from relatively modest but by no means impoverished backgrounds, who attended grammar schools and went to Oxford University but, in despite of their sparkling intellect and ability to lead and focus on their goals in spite of the obstacles, succumbed in their later years to dementia. I recall a word that Wilson often used was “conciliation”, which was to become a mantra which I still adopt. That was definitely not a word one associates with Thatcher, despite her “make me a channel of your peace” speech (quoting St. Francis of Assisi) she gave after winning the 1979 general election.
Like many, I was surprised by Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power. I recall, when Ted Heath (who I quite liked) was on his way out, discussing with a friend as to who might be a his possible successor, and being taken aback by his prediction it would be Thatcher. Besides being a woman (how times have moved on, although there have been no women Prime Minister since) the impressions I had were overall negative ones. I was a student at the time and as Education secretary she was widely disliked by students. The stand out memory here was her stopping free school milk and then being branded “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher“. But she did win and her impact was significant, more significant I would say than any other peace time Prime Minister in the past 100 or so years.
One of her principle legacies was “Thatcherism“, which made a deep impact on British life. According to Wikipedia: “Thatcherism describes the conviction politics, economic, social policy, and political style of the British Conservative politician Margaret Thatcher, who was leader of her party from 1975 to 1990. It has also been used to describe the beliefs of the British government while Thatcher was Prime Minister between May 1979 and November 1990, and beyond into the governments of John Major and Tony Blair“. Yet even today, opinions are divided as to whether her net contributions to this country were beneficial or detrimental, or as is often the case an intricate mixture of both good and bad.
This brings me to a quote I saw posted on Facebook that particularly struck me, which I shared on my own page and which gave rise to some interesting debate: “Speaking following her death today he (Ken Livingstone) said the former Conservative Prime Minister was responsible for every real problem faced in the UK today, as he claimed she had led millions of people out of work. Mr Livingstone told Sky News: “Of course she was popular, she was offering people their homes at a cut price. But she didn’t build any houses. She created today’s housing crisis, she produced the banking crisis, she created the benefits crisis. It was her government that started putting people on incapacity benefits rather than register them as unemployed because the Britain she inherited was broadly at full employment. She decided when she wrote off our manufacturing industry that she could live with two or three million unemployed and the legacy of that, the benefits bill that we are still struggling with today. In actual fact, every real problem we face today is the legacy of the fact she was fundamentally wrong.””
These words were not surprising, coming as they did from the lips of “Red Ken”, an ardent left winger and prominent anti-Thatcherite, but he was not the only one, coming at a time when even opponents tend to say nice things. Many other criticisms could be laid at her door. The jury is still out regarding her handling of the Falkland crisis. Many including me felt her poll tax ideas were unfair and unnecessary. Personally, while benefiting from buying shares at knock down prices in industries she helped privatised, it did help the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer, and her policies did help damage communities. As a Tory , conciliatory minded, wet, I doubt I would have survived in a Thatcher cabinet, as some were to discover. While she loved a good argument she could scathingly squash dissent and was dismissive toward those church leaders who drew attention to the untoward effects of her policies on people.
But just as such criticisms were damming, there are many who felt Thatcher was the right person at the time to be Prime Minister and still see her legacy in a glowing light. While my own views remain not fully formulated, I would like to put forward an alternative view based as much as anything on the fact I was there, before, at and after her time. I recall the winter of discontents, three day weeks, powerful unions holding the country to ransom, Britain being seen as the sick man of Europe and having to go cap in hand to the IMF to be bailed out because we could not pay our way. For some it would not be an understatement to say she changed all that.
She did stand up to union power and promoted the rule of law and she did win. While the closing of coal mines and the reaction by and toward militant miners continues to be contentious issues, it was arguably wrong for unions to stop modern computer technology from being introduced, thus revolutionising the printing industry by making the old fashioned printing skills redundant as it did those with those skills, who thus resisted. Thatcher stood up to Europe and got the deal that suited the UK in a way no other Prime Minister has done since. She stood her ground on the Falkland’s invasion, which some say she was morally beholden to do as this was a British territory. She promoted a culture of individual enterprise that encouraged hard work, rather than being beholden toward the state for work or benefits. Her special relationship with President Reagan helped toward dismantling communism. Some observers have concluded that, under her, Britain’s standing in the world grew, people felt good and the country prospered.
I should imagine that for this post-Thatcher generation, all the above may not mean too much, but for those of us, who lived through it, it meant a lot and still does. While things have moved on some of the principles applied at that time still remain. I was struck when I read recently about one of my own local council buildings, named: Margaret Thatcher House. I don’t know any other council owned building named after a British Prime Minister, which got me thinking that even now Margaret Thatcher still has her supporters among the movers and shakers in our town. I have no doubt there will be many with Conservative inclinations who would much rather see a Margaret Thatcher type person at the helm of power for the UK rather than that nice but rather inept David Cameron. On the Labour side, even though New Labour who some say was a Thatcher legacy, has come in recent years to dominate Labour politics, there will be some who will side with Ken Livingstone and see many of today’s ills as part of the unfortunate Thatcher legacy.
What seems clear to me that while Margaret Thatcher is for many a fading memory, what she achieved or failed to achieve, depending on how you look at it, still raises strong feelings in some.