Margaret Thatcher

26818_jpgThere were two post-war Prime Ministers who presided over transformative governments: Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.  In my typology of Prime Ministers, Attlee was a reformer,  implementing a radical programme drawn up by the party; Margaret Thatcher was an innovator, pursuing a radical policy for which she was essentially responsible.

Margaret Thatcher became Leader of the Conservative Party because Conservative MPs wanted to get rid of Ted Heath and she became PM because voters wanted to vote out the Callaghan Government after the Winter of Discontent.  (In many respects, she was put into No. 10 by the actions of trade unions.)  As Leader of the Opposition, she had not shone (in that respect, she was not unusual) and her actions in Government could not necessarily have been predicted from her period in Opposition.  Thatcherism was a consequence of electoral success in 1979 and not the other way round.  Thatcherism was initially given intellectual coherence by her opponents and some of the elements of it were not the product of a clearly-devised programme for government.  She led her party to victory in three general elections, the success in 1983 and 1987 being more attributable to Thatcher than to Thatcherism.

As I argued in The British Polity, her unprecedented tenure (in modern British politics) as PM had three phases: bitter conflict, domination by the leader, and conflict and fall.  She achieved the implementation of radical policies, despite never managing to create a fully Thatcherite parliamentary party or Cabinet.  She got her way by force of will and by conveying that she knew where she was going.  Some commentators have said she was more pragmatic than is generally realised.  It is more accurate, I think, to say that she knew the difference between what was desirable and what was achievable.

As I argued in my Speaker’s Lecture on Enoch Powell, Powell was a great parliamentarian but not a great politician.  He recognised, and admired the fact, that Thatcher was a great politician.  She could bide her time or tack as appropriate in order to get what she wanted.  She was tough as well as courageous, not least in dealing with the Falklands crisis and the assassination attempt on her in 1984.  It took courage to take on Heath for the party leadership in 1975.

She had her blind spots, though was remarkably kind to those around her, including political opponents (a point I see that Lord Foulkes has made).  She assumed that because she had made it in life, so could others; she may well have succeeded even if she had not married Denis, but we will never know.  Though she became an Anglican, she was clearly influenced by her Methodist roots.  That instilled a work ethic.

She had a remarkable impact upon British politics, the state, and how the UK was seen in the rest of the world.  We cannot know what would have happened in British politics had she not decided to contest the party leadership in 1975.  Some of the things she did may well have been undertaken, though not necessarily when they were.  She has been described as a Marmite politician.  With here you knew where you stood – mainly because you knew where she stood.

Her remarkable political judgment failed her after a decade in office.  She became too rigid and pursued policies, such as the poll tax, that Tory MPs realised may lead to electoral disaster.  She falied to read the signals when Sir Anthony Meyer stood against her for the leadership in 1989.  She lost the leadership in 1990 not because, as she believed (and the BBC seem to believe), by a Cabinet coup, but because of the result of the first ballot in the leadership contest.  That holed her below the waterline.  Cabinet members may have helped her see she could not continue or survive for very long, but her fate was already sealed.  Her loss of office had a similar impact to Powell’s loss of his parliamentary seat in 1987: it took the purpose out of life.  Politics had been her life and she had no real hinterland.

She was arguably the most remarkable politician of modern times.  Her policies will continue to be the subject of debate.  Her policies were divisive, but by their nature they were bound to be.  Pursuing them required a single-minded determination.  Many of her opponents condemn her policies, yet respect the fact that she was a conviction politician.  It was that which made her what she was and delivered electoral success.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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13 Responses to Margaret Thatcher

  1. Dean B says:

    Excellent article.
    I would only question the line “Her policies were divisive, but by their nature they were bound to be.” I am not sure this is the case. Possibly the mines had to be closed if they were not economically viable (and that is strongly disputed), but would most governments not had offered support and help to rebuild the communities that were so decimated? It has been said that the Allies did more to rebuild Germany after the war than the Thatcher administration did to rebuild the mining communities after the pits were closed. Also, was the language she used necessary? Comparing striking miners to the Argentine junta immediately after the Falklands War? Could she not have achieved the same, or even greater, economic benefits with a less abrasive and overly aggressive style? We will never know.
    I would be interested to know if you met her personally, and if so, how you found her.

    • Croft says:

      ” Possibly the mines had to be closed if they were not economically viable (and that is strongly disputed)”

      Disputed by magic money tree economics! Track the decline in steel production domestically with the relative price of other energy sources (cheap north sea gas/oil) and nuclear plants coming on stream then compare the costs of importing coal from mainly vast open cast mines inherently cheaper than deep mining.

      On your other point language is inevitable political but when you had strikers openly talking of bringing the government down as they had effectively with Heath and doing so in breach of the law the Falklands comparison was probably inevitable.

  2. Baroness O'Cathain says:

    She also had a very caring side but she was astute enough to realise that this could be exploited by her critics and her method was to ‘get on with it’.
    I shall always treasure the memory of her 80th birthday party when , having welcomed HM the Queen at the door she walked through the rooms hand- in- hand with her; both looked SO happy, Lady Thatcher introduced many of us, to Her Majesty, including me, in an utterly relaxed, even vivacious, manner. it was obvious that both wonderful ladies were enjoying every minute of the occasion. How now the press comments that they ‘did not hit it off ‘?

  3. Wyn Grant says:

    An excellent piece, as one would expect. I always thought that the loss of Willie Whitelaw as deputy prime minister was unfortunate as he could be a restraining influence when her enthusiasm took her too far and perhaps to use language that was more divisive that it needed to be. I would particularly give her credit for being the prime minister to challenge the view that relative economic decline was something to be accepted and ‘managed’ rather than challenged. In that respect I think there was too long a delay in tackling the promotion of insufficient skill formation, but that has bedevilled all UK governments.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Wyn: Many thanks. I would add that Ian Gow ceasing to be her PPS was also a great loss. Once she had neither Whitelaw nor Gow to give her unvarnished advice, she rather relied upon a coterie of people who lacked their standing and grasp of what was politically viable.

  4. I enjoyed the mental image of the ‘Iron Lady’ being ‘holed her below the waterline.’ Philip!

  5. I disagree that she was removed for the “poll tax” she was removed because she was increasingly negative on the “European Project” so beloved by Heseltine and the rest of the plotters.

    My favorite memory of hers is the first time I met her. We were having a conversation about Masstricht (as one does) and some little oik rushed up for a chat, literally attempting to shove me out of the way. She turned to him and rebuked him in such a way he left looking like a cartoon character that had been hit by an anvil.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Andrew Ian Dodge: European integration may have been the trigger, but it was not necessarily the cause. It was intransigence on the issue of the poll tax that was frightening backbenchers: that was the salient subject on which they were coming under intense pressure in the constituencies.

  6. Lord Norton,
    This is a very good and informative piece for one that is so concise. The woman who would become Baroness thatcher had an unequaled following in America which I would seriously argues at least rivals the interest in Prime Ministers in the British Colonies before the Revolution. Having lived in Britain when very young and then much in the Commonwealth it was easy to note how many more people suddenly knew something about parliament, the PM’s life and related matters. I suppose that it is possible to say she was more adored by many branches of American conservatism than my own but I also respected her.

    The Falklands War was of course reasonably costly to the UK compared to the bombsite tourism which many Americans were starting to think would characterize conflict by first world powers. I realize also the stakes are not so dramatic or lofty as exist in some worldwide conflagrations. However, it really demonstrated to the world that the Brits could and would fight a down and dirty war with little help to protect their fellow subjects. Likewise it showed the Argentines would really fight as well. Unpleasant as it is to the modern ear such demonstrations of real conventional multi-lateral wars are essential in maintaining civilization. It made both countries more relevant in the world in which other powers than nation states were gathering power and momentum..

    I am glad you chose to give her a significant memorial here.She and Reagan and Karol Wotija were really very different people but they formed a crucial nexus in a European crisis which could have been much worse. She will long be remembered…

  7. Rob Peutrell says:

    She was certainly divisive, but conviction doesn’t always demand respect. Her late chum Pinochet was also a conviction politician, although Mrs Thatcher, it will be recalled, campaigned against his conviction for human rights violations. She was a small town philistine who destroyed working class communities and championed a culture of selfish self-interest. Brian Reade more or less gets it:

  8. Tory Boy says:

    She was for me our greatest leader, I met her in The Ritz in 2003 and it was one of the prodest moments of my life. She had conviction, judement and common sense. RIP Lady Thatcher

    • Rob Peutrell says:

      And not forgetting the homophobic Clause 28; scapegoating immigrants; stopping local authorities from building social housing; cutting taxes for the rich whilst consigning a generation of workers to the dole queue; and selling off public utilities (so that I’m persistently being cold-called by one or another of the Big Six energy scammers). Nice one! Meanwhile, Glenda Jackson emerged as one of the few Labour MPs to say it as it really was – and all without notes, whilst Speaker Bercow made it very clear to Sir Tony Baldry that breaking convention is NOT un-Parliamentary (about which I’m sure our noble host will have a View).

      • maude Elwes says:

        Now there is a lady who should be running for leadership. Regardless of her having been and excellent actress. That should stand her in good stead. Why is her talent not recognised?

        Not because of her views on Thatcher, particularly, but because of her clear understanding of what she is and what she believes is the way to go forward and because of her courage in voicing it. She voiced it with the powerful conviction that a true leader should have. All she has to do is drop political correctness from the Labour agenda and they will never be in opposition again.

        And, I will add this, to my own surprise, as I don’t like Bercow, however, his response to the Conservative fatty was exemplary. Well done Bercow, he understood his job thouroughly.

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