There 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.