How should history remember Margaret Thatcher?

Historians Dominic Sandbrook and David Priestland offer contrasting views on the ultimate legacy of Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain's most celebrated, yet divisive, prime ministers...

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Margaret Thatcher photographed in 1994. (Bryce Duffy-Corbis)

David Priestland: “In 1979 Britain needed a jolt, but Thatcher’s solutions were socially corrosive and economically unsound”

Margaret Thatcher’s speech on the steps of Downing Street on 4 May 1979, quoting St Francis of Assisi – “Where there is discord, let there be harmony” – is often seen as deeply hypocritical. And yet in the next two sentences she captured her philosophy rather more accurately: “Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.” 

For it is as a warrior, determined to impose her version of faith and truth on her enemies, that she will go down in history, and that was precisely why she was so politically successful: she was a figure of her time, benefiting from the deep social divisions and anger of the 1970s. But since 2008 it has become increasingly evident that she did not lay the foundations for a prosperous Britain. Indeed, her approach to the major political and economic questions – much of which was inherited by New Labour – has left Britain in deep trouble.

Britain was only one of several industrialised countries in the 1970s to be hit by a global economic crisis: too much smoke-stack industry; galloping inflation; inefficient state-owned companies; government deficits; high levels of worker unrest; business investment strikes. It was clear that economies needed to be retooled to take account of a new economic environment. The question was how this was to be achieved.

Some governments – like the German and the Swedish – sought to create a social consensus behind a programme of gradual restructuring. But Thatcher – like her fellow militant Ronald Reagan -launched a ‘shock therapy’, hiking interest rates and implementing austerity budgets at a time of recession, most controversially in 1981. These policies cut a swathe through industry, and rapidly accelerated Britain’s ‘deindustrial revolution’. At the same time Thatcher did all she could to help the City of London, inaugurating the structural shift from industry to finance that we are struggling to reverse today.

Thatcher also embraced confrontation with the unions, and rejected the wage policies and negotiations so common on the continent. Of course, she was not alone in her militancy. She had stubborn rivals in union leaders like Arthur Scargill. British industrial relations had a deeply troubled history, and reaching agreements was very difficult. But she and her mentor, Keith Joseph, were not even interested in trying. Ideologically opposed to government involvement, they were determined to achieve victory, and they did so by means of high interest rates, recession and anti-strike laws.

Yet the economic results of Thatcher’s policies were disappointing. Growth rates between 1979 and 1990 were barely higher than those of the 1970s (and would have probably been lower without the North Sea oil windfall); and while productivity rose by 11 per cent (largely because of high unemployment), it failed to match increases in Germany (25 per cent).

The one economic policy that has stood the test of time is the privatisation of industries such as British Telecom and British Gas. But the drawbacks of the other major privatisation – of council houses – has become very clear today. One of the main reasons for the ballooning welfare budget is the shortage of state housing and the huge sums the state has to pay to private landlords (including those who now own a large proportion of the ex-council houses).

These weaknesses were not so obvious during the 1990s and 2000s, and had Margaret Thatcher died five years ago, the plaudits would have been more fulsome. Then it seemed that the Falklands War and the Reagan-Thatcher Cold War alliance had initiated a new era of British influence in the world. It also appeared that the finance-heavy, deindustrialised economic model adopted in Britain and the United States was the way of the future. It took the disaster of Iraq in 2003 for the reality of British military weakness to become clear. But it was only in 2008 that the true economic state of affairs became evident: the model built by Thatcher was being sustained by debt.

In recent years, some historians have sought to ‘revise’ Margaret Thatcher; in reality, they claim, she was much less of an ‘iron lady’ than she claimed. And of course, like all politicians, she had to make compromises – especially before the Falklands War when she had ‘wets’ in her cabinet and her position was relatively weak. 

But more accurate is John Major’s assessment of Thatcher as a “profoundly unconservative” figure with “warrior characteristics”. And while we sometimes need warrior-leaders – normally at times of foreign threat – they can rarely solve complex domestic problems. So I therefore believe that while the Queen was right to attend the funeral of Winston Churchill – a fighter of foreign wars – she should not have done the same for Margaret Thatcher, a wager of ‘civil war’.  

David Priestland is a historian at Oxford and the author of Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, 2012).

 

Dominic Sandbrook: “Thatcher got many tough decisions right. Yet perhaps her most remarkable achievement was becoming PM in the first place”

In the summer of 1970, the Finchley Press sent a journalist to interview its local MP. Did she, he wondered, fancy a crack at becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister? “No,” Margaret Thatcher said emphatically, “there will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime – the male population is too prejudiced.”

We know now how wrong she was. Indeed, the thought of Britain without Margaret Thatcher seems unimaginable today. But she was not merely the most dominant political personality since David Lloyd George, she was a transcendent cultural figure who inspired more songs, books, plays and films than any other British leader since Oliver Cromwell. 

As her biographer John Campbell astutely remarked, if you want to see her legacy, just look around. Yet what was that legacy? Even now, more than 20 years after her tearful exit from Number 10, Britain cannot agree. Margaret Thatcher called herself a conservative, but she led the most radical government in living memory. She promised to restore law and order, yet she presided over the worst riots Britain had ever seen. She talked of bringing back Victorian values, yet her decade in office saw divorce, abortion and illegitimacy reach unprecedented heights. She hated profligacy and even paid for her own Downing Street ironing board, yet she also unleashed the power of casino capitalism. And although she talked of rolling back the frontiers of the state, public spending actually rose in all but two of her years in office.

In the future, when historians look back at the Thatcher years, the familiar landmarks will surely loom largest: the savage battle over the economy in the early 1980s, the stunning victory in the Falklands in 1982, the bitter struggle with the miners in 1984–85, the deregulation of the City in 1986, the disastrous introduction of the poll tax, and the high drama of her resignation in 1990. Yet none of this makes sense without a bit of context. 

For when Margaret Thatcher won power in May 1979, it was against the backdrop of the gloomiest decade in modern British history. During the 1970s, Britain had cut a very miserable figure on the world stage. Our major cities seemed shabby and seedy; our newspapers were full of strikes and walkouts; almost every week seemed to bring some new atrocity in Northern Ireland. Over the course of the 1970s, two prime ministers, Edward Heath and James Callaghan, had been broken by the trade unions, while a third, Harold Wilson, descended into paranoia. Foreign papers talked of Britain as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’. Callaghan himself told his colleagues: “If I were a young man, I would emigrate”.

Margaret Thatcher’s supreme achievement, as even her opponents now admit, was to blow away the stale winds of decline. At first, with unemployment soaring, she seemed certain to go down as a one-term fluke. But victory in the Falklands changed her political image. The lame duck had become Britannia incarnate; military success had won her the time she needed. 

By the time she left office, Britain was unquestionably a more open, dynamic, entrepreneurial and colourful society than it had been in the 1970s. Taxes were lower, strikes were down, productivity growth was much improved and far from fleeing Britain, as they had once threatened to do, foreign investors were now queuing to get in. Of course this came at a very heavy cost, especially in the ravaged industrial north. But in reality, Britain in the 1980s was always facing an immensely painful transition, partly because so many difficult decisions had been postponed for so long, but also because the stark reality of globalisation meant that major industries – notably car-making, ship-building and coal-mining – were doomed even before she took power. Thatcher became a convenient scapegoat. But she did not deserve all the blame.

In the end, you are left with the woman herself. Indeed, the very fact that she was a woman may well have been the most remarkable thing about her. There is a supreme irony in the fact that Thatcher, who loathed feminism, came to embody the extraordinary expansion in the horizons of Britain’s women – the single biggest social change of the 20th century. And in several centuries’ time, I suspect that what Britain will remember about Margaret Thatcher is the simple fact of her femininity. Thatcher herself might not agree. But in the end, the interesting thing about the Iron Lady was not that she was made of iron. It was that she was a lady.  

Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 (Allen Lane).

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