The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

THIRTY years ago, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street as Britain's first woman prime minister. She won three straight election victories, decimated the coal mining industry and pit communities, and oversaw military success in the Falklands.

Graham Dines

THIRTY years ago, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street as Britain's first woman prime minister. She won three straight election victories, decimated the coal mining industry and pit communities, and oversaw military success in the Falklands. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES looks back at the decade of the Iron Lady.

THATCHERISM is the most polarising word in the English language. Margaret Thatcher is either lionised as a modern day Boadicea who transformed the economy, took on the feckless, and gave the nation renewed self-belief, or she is despised as an evil woman who crushed the life out of the dispossessed, making the poor poorer and the rich richer.

The general election of May 1979 was called when James Callaghan's minority Labour government lost by one a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.

The Scottish National Party joined forces with the Tories to vote down an administration which had looked on as the public sector trade unions held the country to ransom. Rat-infested rubbish was strewn throughout the cities, piling up because the bin men were on strike.

Bodies littered hospital mortuaries and undertakers because there was no-one to dig graves or operate the ovens.

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The Prime Minister flew back into London from the Caribbean to declare there was no crisis and that everything was under control when even the most bigoted Labour supporter could clearly see that it wasn't.

In the election that followed, the Tories have won 339 seats, Labour 269, the Liberals 11, Ulster parties 12 and the nationalists four.

When told the outcome, former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe - awaiting trial at the Old Bailey for conspiracy and incitement to murder - who lost his North Devon seat in a crushing defeat said: “I am horrified. She makes [her predecessor] Ted Heath look like a moderate.”

As she stood on the steps of Number 10, Mrs Thatcher invoked the memory of St Francis of Assisi, by quoting him: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

But 11 years later, after resigning when her own MPs rebelled against her, there was no harmony in Britain. There was discord. She had failed, the last nail in the coffin being the poll tax - an admirable attempt to make every adult rather than just householders and businesses pay for local government services, but one which failed because of public hostility, leading to the infamous riot in Trafalgar Square.

Between May 1979 and November 1990, Britain changed under Mrs Thatcher.

Inflation was brought under control, leading to the end of crushing pay rises which the country could not afford. In the first Tory budget, the 80% top rate of tax was cut to 60% and the standard rate reduced from 33% to 30%.

But VAT shot up from 8% to 15% - a tax which hit the lowest paid disproportionately because it made the necessities of life more expensive.

Unemployment climbed to 2.7million within a year of her election victory - the adult jobless total rose more rapidly in 1980 than in any single year since 1930. There were riots in Manchester, Liverpool, and London.

Britain was descending into chaos. It looked as if she would be a one-term failure. And then . . .

Three events things changed the shape of British politics.

Firstly, Labour elected Michael Foot as leader, as disastrous a choice as the Conservatives made two decades later in Iain Duncan Smith.

Foot was rabidly ultra left-wing. Callaghan's centralist, paternalist approach was thrown aside as Labour turned its back on the middle classes and fell into the eagerly outstretched arms of the trade unions.

Secondly, moderate Labour politicians broke away from Foot to form the Social Democrats. It made the leftism of Labour even more exposed.

And then Argentina invaded South George and the Falkland Islands in a dispute over sovereignty and the rich deposit of oil in the area. These rocky outcrops in the icy cold Atlantic were home to a couple of thousand people whose allegiance was to the Queen.

Mrs Thatcher sent a task force of marines and paratroopers. An ageing aircraft carrier was readied and set sail as the world looked on in astonishment.

But thanks to the gallantry of the Royal Navy, the RAF, and the Army, the UK expelled the Argentines and took back the islands, thus establishing the Iron Lady as a sort of 20th century Britannia.

The 1983 election was a landslide victory for the Conservatives. The Labour manifesto - dubbed the longest suicide note in history - promised to take Britain out of the European Community but as Thatcher had yet to proclaim Euroscepticism in any large degree, Michael Foot was swotted aside.

He was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a firebrand who was equally as unelectable as Foot. All he could do was watch as the Government took on the National Union of Mineworkers, and defeated the strikers in the bitterest industrial dispute of the century.

There was little public support for the miners or their traditional communities. Norman Tebbit was backed when he told the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work.

Mondeo Man - the name given to aspiring working class whites who gleefully joined the Thatcher revolution to become home owners after being allowed to buy their council houses as huge discounts - backed the tough stand against the unions.

And Britain signed the Single Market agreement, opening up the free export of goods across the nation state borders of the European Community.

Thatcher triumphed again in 1987. Had it not been for the poll tax, she may very well have led the Tories onto another triumph in 1992.

Yet public disquiet over the poll tax swelled within the ranks of Tory MPs, who panicked that they would lose the next election under her leadership. There's something distinctly unappealing about a pack to Conservatives once self interest takes over.

They forced her out, bringing Thatcherism to an end.

People who look back at the 11 years in office of “that woman” as if she was a dictator overlook the undeniable - she won three general elections victories and possibly could have won a fourth if her backbenchers hadn't taken fright over the poll tax.

Thatcher was divisive and it is this more than anything else that makes her hated today

For all her faults, she shaped Britain's role in the world and gave those who were prepared to work the incentive of keeping more of their cash. She turned Britain into a home owning society.

Margaret Thatcher was a conviction politician, driven by her own self belief. You were either for her or against her, wet or dry. The wets were tossed aside.

A dignified departure at a time of her own choosing was denied her. She fell because she couldn't comprehend that her time was up. Nearly 20 years later, Gordon Brown also seems unable to understand that politicians are mortal, not infallible.


“To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.”

“My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day's work for an honest day's pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”

“Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word.”

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only this to say, 'You turn if you want; the lady's not for turning.'”

“Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and importance, although difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.”

“I don't mind how much my Ministers talk, so long as they do what I say.”

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn't swim.”