The jury's still out on Thatcher's legacy
Appropriately enough, we were in a history class, waiting for our teacher Roy Allen, when we got the news. “Have you heard?” he said, bustling excitedly into the classroom. “She’s gone!” The date was 22 November 1990, the time about 11 o’clock.
The French revolution was forgotten; urgently marshalled upstairs, we trooped towards the staff common room, where a small crowd had already gathered around the television. On screen, the BBC’s political editor John Cole was mulling over the possible contenders to succeed Margaret Thatcher as leader of the Conservative party. Across the country, some people were horrified, others delighted. My own reaction, as I recall, was sheer disbelief. Mrs Thatcher had run the country since I was four and a half; I had never known another leader.
Earlier this year, reading two highly entertaining books on the Thatcher decade, Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! and Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing as Society, I was struck by the speed with which particular moments become fixed points to which all future historians must pay homage. Already the 1980s, like the 1960s before them, are being reduced to a succession of pop-political highlights: the Falklands, the miners’ strike, the New Romantics, alternative comedy, and so on. One day, perhaps, somebody will write an account of the decade that downplays the Filofax and admits that far more people watched Terry and June than ever laughed at Ben Elton. But not now.
What is really remarkable about the 1980s is that images of the decade are still defined by its dominant political personality. Mrs Thatcher still casts an indelible shadow. While it would be perfectly possible to write an article about the 1930s without mentioning Stanley Baldwin, or about the 1960s without mentioning Harold Wilson, the grammar-school girl from Grantham cannot be ignored. It is remarkable, too, that she remains such a politically divisive, even inflammatory figure: a heroine to some, a villain to others.
Since we have become so used to seeing Mrs Thatcher as a hugely controversial figure, we easily forget how unusual this is. Twenty years after his resignation in 1976, Harold Wilson was almost totally forgotten. The 20th anniversary of Attlee’s departure in 1951 passed off almost unnoticed, and I doubt that many people will care much about Tony Blair in 2027. Even David Lloyd George, perhaps the only 20th-century prime minister who rivals her as a genuinely divisive character, had become largely irrelevant by 1942 – although it is interesting to learn from Roy Hattersley’s new biography that had the Germans invaded two years earlier, Lloyd George was the leading candidate to become our Marshal Pétain.
Mrs Thatcher, I suspect, will go down in history as one of those endlessly controversial characters that English history seems to do so well.
The Victorian clergyman Malcolm MacColl once remarked of the great Liberal statesman William Gladstone that he was “one of those strong natures which must arouse antagonism in the unavoidable conflicts of public life”, and about whom it was “impossible to be neutral”. Thatcher herself liked the Gladstone parallel. What he would have made of her can only be imagined. But as a provincial middle-class Methodist who made much of thrift, sobriety and hard work, she thought a lot of him. Remarking that critics often likened her brand of Conservatism to Victorian Liberalism, she told her party conference that she “would not mind betting that if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative party”.
In her sheer divisiveness and grip on the public imagination, the other obvious figure that Mrs Thatcher resembles is the man whose legacy lies at the heart of the dissenting tradition, the champion of the “plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows”.
Both during his lifetime and afterwards, Oliver Cromwell was a hero of liberty to some but a repressive autocrat to others. Even the Earl of Clarendon’s famously double-edged verdict, that Cromwell was a “brave bad man”, probably rings a few bells with some of her critics. But if Cromwell’s example is any guide, we will be waiting a long time for a definitive verdict on the Thatcher years. It is just over 350 years since the Protector breathed his last, and still there is no consensus. It is a safe bet, I think, that 350 years from now, people will still be arguing about Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, too.