How Margaret Thatcher made Britain great again

Feb 25, 2009
Andrew Roberts

As the BBC tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall in a major new drama, historian Andrew Roberts assesses her legacy

WHEN Margaret Thatcher was asked what she had changed about British politics, she answered: "Everything." It was uncharacteristically immodest of her, but it was true. After she became prime minister in May 1979, she changed the atmosphere of the pre-emptive cringe that successive ministries of both parties and industrial management had exhibited towards the trade unions ever since the World War Two.

She changed the sense of embarrassment that Britons felt towards the concepts of productivity and profit. She changed British reliance on manufacturing industry just in time, inaugurating the services and information technology industry revolutions.

She changed the attitude of appeasement and post-imperial guilt that had actuated foreign policy making since the Suez Crisis. She changed British politics so fundamentally that the Labour Party had to drop socialism and change its name and objectives in order to get elected.

No one was in any doubt about what Lady Thatcher stood for or believed in

Along with her friend and ideological soulmate Ronald Reagan - the greatest US president since Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940s - Thatcher changed the failing policy of detente with Communism into the confrontational one that eventually brought the Berlin Wall down at the end of her premiership.

She changed the ownership structure of vast industries, exchanging the nebulous concept of 'national' ownership for the more efficient, purer (and ultimately fairer) one of shareholder ownership. She changed the way we financed the European budget.

Meanwhile she fundamentally changed - for the worse - the career paths of the Labour PM Jim Callaghan, the Argentinian junta leader General Galtieri, the next Labour leader Michael Foot, the extreme left-wing National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill, the next Labour leader Neil Kinnock and especially the IRA terrorist and hunger-striker Bobby Sands.

Those things that she did not change for the better she would have, if she hadn't been knifed by an over-ambitious cabal of cowards, fools, traitors and - worst of all -  Europhiles, who split the Tory party and left it feuding for half a generation, until the advent of David Cameron in 2005.

The election victory of 1992 was largely down to her legacy rather than the non-leadership of her absurd successor John Major, since when the Conservatives were thrice defeated by Tony Blair - an ideological son of Thatcher - at three general elections.

By encouraging George Bush Sr not to 'wobble' during the First Gulf War, she set the international scene that allowed Tony Blair to finish off the campaign against Saddam Hussein that she started in 1990, further strengthening the Special Relationship that the two PMs both so fervently believed in.

The actions against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo and the liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein were both supported by Thatcher after she left office, showing that her instinct for extending democracy was undimmed. (Fortunately this did not extend during her premiership to the corrupt, unwieldy and extremist GLC, which she heroically abolished in 1986.)

The kind of permanent revolution she offered did not suit everyone

Margaret Thatcher stuck to the practice of saying what she meant and meaning what she said. When she said the lady wasn't for turning, she wasn't. When she said the Falklands must be liberated come what may, they were. When she said that people would be allowed to buy their own council houses, they were too. When she told European politicians that she wanted a rebate on the billions Britain overpaid the EEC, she held out till she got one.

There's a downside to all this refreshing candour, of course. The kind of permanent revolution she offered did not suit everyone and eventually she was overthrown.

But she went down fighting for her principles; no one was in any doubt about what she stood for or what she believed in. You might not have agreed with her, but few deny that hers was a towering political honesty of the kind hardly ever heard from today's so-called leaders.

British politics throws up very few giants, but in her record-breaking 11-and-a-half years in the premiership - the longest continuous period of anyone since 1827 - Margaret Thatcher showed herself to be one such.

Margaret will be shown on BBC2 on Thursday, February 26 at 9pm

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