Monday, April 08, 2013

How the mighty have fallen: some thoughts on Margaret Thatcher

My boyhood political heroes were Wat Tyler, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Clem Attlee. I was never going to be Mrs. Thatcher's no. 1 fan. But I was old enough to feel the impact of the 'Winter of Discontent'. I remember my parents explaining to me that the country had ground to a halt due  industrial action. Rubbish piled up on the streets and the dead remained unburied. A palpable sense of gloom had descended upon late 1970's Britain. Even a twelve year old boy could sense that. 'Great Britain'? Pah! We were on a seemingly inevitable spiral of post-imperial decline. 

Then Mrs.Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister in 1979. I can recall watching her on the television news reading the prayer of St Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10. 'Where there is discord, may we bring peace.' The sentiment rings rather hollow now, although I'm sure it was well meant  at the time. Her period in office was one of perpetual conflict rather than peace; the miners strike, Falklands war, poll tax demos, Europe. Not to mention the tensions within her own party the eventually led to her downfall. But many of her battles needed to be fought and she showed courage and determination in facing down her political and military opponents. 

As something of a leftie I instinctively opposed may of Mrs T's policies, tut tutting at 'police brutality' during the miners' strike and loathing the Poll Tax. But there is no denying that she was a conviction politician who changed Britain for good. For good in the sense of permanently and for good in the sense of for the better too, although it didn't seem like that to me at the time. 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out! Out! Out!' was the cry. 

But things couldn't go on as they were with overstaffed, inefficient nationalised industries and overmighty trade unions. Modern day Britain is a very different place. No more wildcat strikes bringing the country to its knees. No more state-owned airlines, car, coal and steel industries. No more natioanlised gas, electricity and telecommunication providers. However, not enough was done to provide decent jobs for unemployed miners and factory workers. The industrial heartlands of South Wales still haven't properly recovered from the Thatcher Revolution.

Deregulated markets lead to a credit-fueled consumer boom. We all wanted to be 'Yuppies', even as we affected to despise them. We aped their double-breasted business suits and carried around fake, cheapo Filofaxes. The Thatcher era  helped to foster a spirit of individualistic consumerism. Hapless Brits were freed from the union Barons only to be enslaved to admen and bankers as they maxed out their credit cards in a quest for materialistic satisfaction. We all know where that led. 

When Labour returned to power in 1997 under Tony Blair, the party did not attempt to turn back the clock to pre-Thatcher Britain. In opposition the party gained electoral credibility by ditching Clause 4, of its constitution, which committed the party to the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. In terms of running the economy, New Labour offered Thatchernomics with tax credits. Oh, but unlike the Tories, with Blair/Brown at the helm there would be 'no more boom and bust.' Well, at least until credit was crunched in 2008. 

I don't know where I'd place myself on the political spectrum these days, Red Tory or Blue Labour. But whatever one's political predilections you've got to have a sneaking admiration for Thatcher as a political leader. Her immediate predecessors in No. 10, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan were managers. The 'Iron Lady' was a leader, who knew what she wanted and stopped at nothing until she got it, whether a rebate from the EU or the Falkland Islands. She bestrode the world stage, helping to win the Cold War with Ronald Regan. With her at the helm Britain began to feel Great again, even though that may have been an illusion.  

But now the once mighty, almost regal Baroness Thatcher (remember 'we are a grandmother'?) has fallen. She has gone the way of all flesh. Dust we are and to dust we shall return, whether paupers or Prime Ministers. We lament the passing of a controversial Stateswoman whose achievements will long outlive their architect.  

Unlike Blair and Cameron who have sometimes seemed intent on destroying the Christian heritage of our country, Thatcher recognised that the Christian moral vision is a force for good in society saying,  ‘I find it difficult to imagine that anything other than Christianity is likely to resupply most people in the West with the virtues necessary to remoralise society in the very practical ways which the solution of many present problems require’. In a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 she declared,
we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ.
That supreme sacrifice is our only hope in life and death.


Gary Benfold said...

Interesting. It was Maggie and her realistic understanding of economics that delivered me from the nonsense of South Yorkshire socialism. It was interesting yesterday to hear some who had opposed her saying 'Of course what she did needed to be done...'

Ben said...

I too grew in my appreciation of her, from initial irritation (that grating voice in the early days) through greater awareness of the significance of her reforms, to gratitude to someone who, in a restricted sense of the word, saved our country from the "sorry, it can't be done" mindset of the nationalised industries and all that went with them. It's not only Britons who should be grateful, but also many millions in Eastern Europe who have escaped the tyranny of communism in part because of her courage.