Monday, 8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher has died, of a stroke, aged 87

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I felt very old when I read an interview this morning with her nemesis, Michael Heseltine, and saw that Tarzan is now 80. And now, the news that the Iron Lady herself, the Great She-Elephant, She Who Must Be Obeyed, Tina ('There is No Alternative') has finally died.

Apparently patients in Britain in the 1980s who suffered from amnesia, senility, delirium or schizophrenia, when they were unable to remember the names of their children or spouses nevertheless recognised her name. People dreamt about her as frequently as they dreamt of the Queen or members of the royal family, which British people do very often. She was part of my generation's collective subconscious, part of the very fibre of our being, whether we liked or loathed her.



I disliked Mrs. Thatcher when she was in power very much because of unemployment and her economic policies and because I reacted to her as to hearing a knife scraped across a plate. As Charles Moore said she was where all the snobberies converged: she was a science graduate; a Northerner; lower middle-class. I hope these were not my reasons but she seemed to me and many the Daily Mail and (lower middle) class prejudice incarnate. In some ways she was, but in good ways as well as bad.

Baroness Thatcher, Britain's greatest post-war prime minister, has died at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke, her family has announced

I still think, though I was wrong on a number of things, that Britain's relative economic decline, compared to other developed economies, was not very significant, though I understand much better now why people at the time thought it was. I suppose if enough people thought it was then perhaps it was, but I am still relaxed about the fact that the English were, before Margaret Thatcher, less concerned about getting on and hard work than the Americans and Japanese. 

I still have doubts about privatisation and certainly about using the proceeds for tax cuts, but privatisations worked far better than I expected. So did tax cuts. It was unemployment that cowed and broke the unions, but though this was terribly sad they needed breaking. I see now, but did not then, that tax cuts were needed to reduce state power - unfortunately, that battle seems lost these days. The poll tax was a terrible idea, as I knew it would be before it was even mooted. Rates were the perfect tax, but I drove Essex Man crazy with self-righteous fury  by saying so.

Mrs Thatcher was in many ways a classical liberal, as her so-called 'Wet' opponents within her party alleged, but she most of all represented what Salisbury called 'villa Toryism'. A good thing too in many ways but without always a feel for the working class or the poor, at least up North and in Scotland, though millions of working class people loved her very much.

But overall how much better things were when she was Prime Minister: no devolution; far fewer powers given to the EU (though she agreed to majority voting); 50,000 immigrants entered the UK a year instead of large multiples of that now; hereditary peers; far, far fewer laws and far more freedom, especially freedom of speech. Parliament stayed up till the early hours for key debates and was not merely a rubber stamp for governments; there were about 26 women MPs, which seemed normal, and family-friendly Parliamentary hours had not been introduced. Although things were already very politically correct, a phrase that had not been coined in her day, people smoked in pubs and could do a hundred other things our liberal-authoritarian masters no longer allow. 

She was not socially conservative at all - encouraging women not to go to work would have cut male unemployment. 
Her England became more and more feminist, though she said she hated feminism like poison,  and more and more laissez faire about sexual morality as well as economics. But in academia, local government and teaching the Left were tightening their illiberal grip. 

My main reason for admiring her now is all the laws she would not have brought in, on press regulation, hate speech, discrimination, unfair dismissal and all the whole caboodle.

In the 1970s, as a young boy, I knew England needed a De Gaulle, but completely failed to see she was our De Gaulle (the difference being her loyalty to America). Her willingness to follow America in almost everything always irked me but she was not the stuff lapdogs are made of. Mr Blair was.

She was right about the Cold War, though I winced at her and Mr. Reagan's speeches. She was right about the enemy within, but presided over a period when the Left took education and academia further Leftwards than they had every been. She was right about Europe but signed the Single European Act, which gave up the requirements that decisions of the EEC require unanimity. She was right to go to war with Argentina but had she not said she would scrap HMS Endeavour I doubt if the invasion would have happened. (I urged the MP I worked for to ask questions about HMS Endeavour before the war started.) I thought the Rhodesian settlement a great achievement but the Foreign Office fooled her into thinking Nkomo would win the elections and instead Mugabe did. She was right to want to reduce immigration from the 50,000 a year which made people, she said, feel 'swamped' but failed to do so.

The Guardian editorial pays tribute to her but ends on this note:


"Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free." 


I think socialists had convinced the English for a generation that enterprise and individualism were greedy and selfish, so that when they became enterprising and individualistic they felt gleefully amoral or else guilty, when in fact they were being moral. I remember my shock in about 1989 when, reading the  volume on Chaucer in the old Macmillan's English Men of Letters series, the writer pointed out that in Chaucer's age, as in every age, the English were enterprising. I did not want to hear this then because I could not argue with it. The English always were enterprising, rather as we now think of Americans, until the mid-20th century. 

The 1970s were arguably a more selfish decade than the 1980s, with endless strikes and at one point the dead unburied. Under Margaret Thatcher, charitable giving doubled in real terms, leaving out the effects of inflation. Selfishnness, though, you have always with you.

I heard her speak innumerable times. Margaret Thatcher's greatest defect was her lack of eloquence. She did not have the words to make her ideas seem socially concerned or expansive, when in fact she was a moralist and hers was a moral crusade. As she once said, 


'Economics is only the method. I want to change people's souls.' 

She was the only good looking woman MP in her day and, though I was never attracted to her, most MPS were. I often saw her when I worked in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. She had very good legs and a generous bust. Mitterrand is supposed to have said she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe, though, according to the very reliable Charles Moore, Lady Thatcher's official biographer, what he really said was ‘the voice of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Stalin.' 

I only met her once, when I was 8, when my father took me to the Houses of Parliament and I got lost looking at coins on display on the walls. She found me, took me to my father and showed us various coins that were not on public display and then showed us the members' terrace. I knew who she was because at eight politics was my passion. She was the shadow Education Minister and soon to take away free school milk.




My father wanted to take me up to see Winston Churchill's state funeral (I was 3) and I shall never forgive my mother for dissuading him. Why do women have the wrong priorities? He went alone and I watched it on television which does not count, especially as I do not remember it. The first death of an English Prime Minister I remember is therefore Anthony Eden's in 1977. I clearly remember that evening, walking home from school, thinking of that old man, living in Jamaica, his reputation in shreds because of Suez, for whose death Parliament would adjourn for a day.

1977 is a long time ago. Still, Jerry Brown ('Moonbeam Brown') is Governor of California again, as he was then. And I was two years below Hugh Laurie at university, so I am still young. Young-ish. 

For how people are rejoicing at Lady Thatcher's death, click here.

For six interesting graphs on her time in office, click here.

Finally, a footnote. (I love footnote knowledge.) Mrs. Thatcher, as she then was, invited Jimmy Savile to Christmas dinner at Chequers every year. What fun those dinners must have been.

34 comments:

  1. At least no hagiography from you Paul. Now we just have her bastard offspring, Cameron, Osborne and their vile ilk to contend with.

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    1. Cameron is a centrist Macmillanite and Whig.

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  2. No woman is perfect. Hmm. No man is for that matter. I liked her because she wasn't wobbly.

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    1. Yes, no weeble, she.

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    2. Alan that is just the sort of thing you would have said at school. Odd how people do not change.

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  3. Well you could have mentioned her liberal zeal for 'free'markets, the forerunner of the rapacious U.S model, which has led in turn to Quatarisation, and Sinosticism. Reimperialism ,if you like, with none of the cultural benefits.

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  4. Kicking out patients from the mental hospitals into non-existent “Community Care” and selling them off to Property developers to be turned into luxury flats can never be presented as socially concerned no matter how eloquently. She was a neoliberal ideologue who lived in her own little universe. In terms of destructiveness only Blair’s record beats Thatcher’s.

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  5. I will miss Margaret Thatcher. Americans have a genuine warmth and respect for someone who was a true ally and helped transform trans-Atlantic relations. RIP Mrs Thatcher.

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  6. People think of Thatcher as Reagan's poodle, as Blair became to Bush. This was never true. She stood up to Reagan over the Falklands and over Grenada. It was only for Britain's interests in defence of freedom and prosperity, that she grew so close to Reagan

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  7. I still remember the time in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. There was a huge sense of relief in the UK that finally a leader had emerged to face off the unions, who under Callaghan (who remembers him today??) had rendered the UK almost ungovernable. Garbage left uncollected on the streets, bodies unburied, coalminers, steelworkers, car assembly workers (and others) continuously on strike: these things tend to be forgotten today. Thatcher's simple introduction of the requirement for unions to hold secret ballots before initiating strike action changed all that. She did much to modernise Britain and free it of choking socialism. Although she was always controverial and in her later years became estranged from her people, she was a remarkable woman who may arguably be considered the most important British leader in the twentieth century after Churchill. A comment she once made that I think typifies her is "I don't care if they don't like me, but they will respect me!". RIP.

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  8. Strange feelings to see her gone.

    Mrs Thatcher, when asked what her greatest achievement was, apparently replied "Tony Blair".

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  9. a very individual take

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  10. Paul has such a stunningly original way with words. He makes every word take a form of its own. I dont always agree with what he writes but I sure like the way he phrases his statements. Congratultions Paul!!!

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  11. I should have made my career as a writer not seducing Romanian lawyers from their employ. Thank you very much my dear

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  12. She sliced up and sold off this country piece by piece to foreigners. Is that a fair assessment?

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  13. a fair-minded and well-written article

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  14. Paul, can you explain, or link to a good explanation, what was the "poll tax/rate tax" problem ? All that my google-fu is helping me find is about the riots.

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  15. http://www.scotsman.com/news/uk/margaret-thatcher-poll-tax-was-beginning-of-the-end-1-2884066

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  16. it replaced rates which was a tax on property - a very fair tax in my opinion but hated by people who could not understand the concept of a property tax - it is to do with the deep obsession the English have with owning houses. A very class prejudiced move though MT's intentions were not class prejudiced. The real problemn was that after the war Labour gave the vote to everyone in local elections not just property owners.

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  17. ... every adult was expected to pay the same tax, the same number of GBP ?

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  18. It was long ago and in another country and besides the wench is dead.

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  19. Everyone in each municipality had to I think but it is fuzzy...

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  20. but only part of local expenditure came from the tax, the rest from central government

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  21. I don't think I agree with your politics but it's a pleasure to see a balanced, thoughtful and knowledgeable post like that. Peter Risdon

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  22. well-wriiten Paul. I enjoyed it. Yes in comparison to the Billy Bragg/Ken Livingstone nightmare that Britain has become with London fast declining into a third-world happy hunting ground, the 1980s seem positively halcyonic

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  23. She was something. But, in my opinion, we need more Europe, not less. This is where i think she make a big mistake

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  24. Romania does, to some extent, but not England. Though I do not see why Romania should not decide for herself about corporal punishment or smoking in restaurants.

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  25. Thatcher has been vindicated in every way. UK went from being bailed out to the strongest economy on Europe.

    We can also see the disastrous effect the Euro has had on economies and she was the only one opposed. If only anyone had listened to her the Euro crisis would have been avoided.

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  26. Paul, as Robert Peston noted, like most English people, I have mixed feelings about Thatcher. The sad truth, however, is that whilst in the case of many nationalised industries all she did was turn the life support machine off, the wholesale wipe out of manufacturing was not necessary. It wasn't simply about being uneconomic, her supply side approach to economics and the drive to push down inflation at any price was devastating. More fundamentally, it wasn't that change needed to be implemented that makes her so divisive, its the cold indifference to the human effects of her policies that. The total destruction of whole communities is not a matter of pride. Where before people may have been described as working class they now either had now work to do, or were kept on part time, short term, or temporary contracts, were outsourced and pushed into what became known as the underclass. A group with no work, or work that pays so little as to keep people just above the poverty line, but offers no meaningful prospect of a better life and no meaningful stake in society. Peston describes how the combination of de-industrialisation, tax change and the loss of public housing shifted Britain between 1980 and 1990 from being one of the most equal societies in the developed world to one of the most unequal.

    The mocking of mutuality, with the Building Societies Act, wasn't a swipe at socialism, it was an attack on a view of life based upon community self help that dates back to before the industrial revolution. That so many Building Societies resisted the character that most personifies her reign - Harry Enfield's Loadsa Money - and the carpet baggers provided a refuge for ordinary peoples savings in the current financial crisis. A crisis that is entirely rooted in her policies of deregulation, allowing commercial and merchant banking to merge together. Its effects have been far worse as a result of the over-dependence upon London and more specifically financial services that her policies created.

    She did indeed represent a time when politics had sharper edges, was a great leader and changed the culture of the country in way that only the post-war government did during the twentieth century. Britain was almost certainly a better place in 1990 than it was in 1980, but lets not forget the terrible social price that was paid by an entire generation. The fact that she may have had nice legs is to miss the point by a wide margin.

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  27. Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party in response to the unions using their power to bully. Without that bullying Callaghan or Heath would have continued to be PM. Seeing the country run into the ground with insufficient fuel to produce electricity, secondary picketing businesses generally were being destroyed. We always hear about the poor mining communities but what about the families in those other businesses destroyed by union action? Most illustrative was Eddie Shah and his attempts to produce a newspaper. Certainly my grandfather's business was closed and all staff unemployed because of union action.
    So what was England going to do? Continue do decline and wait for the IMF to enforce conditions as is happening in Greece or Cyprus? Or to find someone with the courage and a plan to take on the unions? I think we are very lucky to have had Thatcher to rescue us and the unions were unlucky to have Scargil, Jones and Murray whoc didn't know when to stop and made the result much more destructive.
    And I do wonder how much the destruction of industry is due in part to North Sea Oil. Why? Because with North Sea Oil the pound was artificically high which made wage and industrial costs artificially high and uncompetitive. Generally an economy with a high oil production does not have a flourishing manufacturing industry.
    Anthony

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  28. Richard Vinen's book Thatcher's Britain seems to vindicate much of the critique I made of her at the time - that England was not doing so badly before - but I feel it misses the point that she restored England's belief in herself and released a huge amount of energy in the country which had been sent to sleep by social democracy. He makes the point well that she was a very pragmatic politician and that things were surprisingly liberal in her time. Her administration's policy on AIDS for example. I think the fact that AIDS did not lead to a moral backlash is sad but the Conservatives disagreed. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/features/book-review-thatcher-s-britain-by-richard-vinen-1-1037353

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  29. I completely agree Anonymous - but I gave her no credit for this at the time because it was unemployment more than legislation that broke the unions but thank God they were broken for everyone's sake. Alan Clarke was asked by another Tory MP what achievement do we have, to set against three million unemployed? He answered 'well we have three million unemployed'. A very cruel joke but unemployment. did shake out some bad things like union power, at a terrible human cost. But unemployment was scarcely an achievement and it was not intended. To some extent it replaced what Norman Tebbit called 'hidden unemployment' meaning overmanning and low productivity but the cost was terribly high to individuals and communities. What the Wets did not understand was that it was not as high a cost as in the 1930s because of more generous welfare and greater opportunities than then for the unemployed - the world had changed out of recognition since then. But still a unemployment is a terrible thing. Norman Tebbit's changes to employment law were a great achievement I see now - far better than Heath's corporatist reforms. I met Lord Tebbit, as he then wasn't, in around 1981 and was very impresses by his brain and understanding of Edwardian labour history. He has what Cambridge men smugly call a first class mind.

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  30. You have all missed the point, Thatcher and Murdoch had a secret lunch to give him a media monopoly and her the Falklands War popularity to win elections. Cameron gave us the Leveson Inquiry that exposed the pair. UK has a culture of favoring monopolies and cartels and so Murdoch still roams free. We deserve the austerity, riots and socialism that the cartels have given us. Thatcher acted to defeat both Unionism and Capitalism.

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