Looking Back in Anger (or Awe)

Chris Calland

What kind of obituary do you write for a Prime Minister who split opinion so sharply during their tenure as Margaret Thatcher did?

In her death, as during her life, it probably depends on where you sit on the political spectrum.

The airwaves and newspapers are already full of critics on the Left who say she divided the country, and champions on the Right who say she saved it.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Before the Falklands war she was the most unpopular Prime Minister since polling began. But after this she romped home to a landslide victory in the 1983 General Election.

So, surely that means that her decisive leadership turned the tide?

In part, yes. But let us remember that the Labour Party at the time was unelectable (certainly under the First Past the Post electoral system). Plus the senior ranks of the Armed Forces (especially the Navy) lobbied heavily for a military response as it was felt to be not only morally right, but also an opportunity to prove their effectiveness (especially with the then planned defence cuts, which would actually have made the war unwinnable had it happened several months later, after Britain’s long-distance amphibious fighting capability would have been mothballed).

But that doesn’t mean she made the wrong call when the time came – again, your opinion on that will probably depend on your political allegiances.

Then there is the question of whether she was an architect of the seismic social and economic changes which characterised Britain in the 1980s, whether she was merely one of several midwives to those changes, or whether she too was swept along by the “sea change” in British politics that her predecessor James Callaghan saw coming at the time of the 1979 General Election.

Again, the truth lies somewhere in between.

How many people know, for instance, that James Callaghan’s Government was the first to consider selling Council houses to their tenants at discount rates? Or that Callaghan had covertly (though letting it be known to Buenos Aires) despatched a nuclear submarine to the South Atlantic when there had been earlier signs of a possible Argentine invasion of the Falklands in the late 1970s?

But again, that doesn’t mean she was wrong to fight that war (or that she was right).

We can also debate whether the former Labour Employment Secretary Barbara Castle – long thought a more likely candidate to become the first female Prime Minister – would have prevented Thatcherism by neutering trade union militancy, had she got through her industrial relations reforms white paper “In Place of Strife” in 1969 (opposition to which was led, ironically given the trouble the trade unions caused him during his premiership, by James Callaghan).

But that is just to indulge in “What If” History. Indeed, what if Margaret Thatcher had been killed by the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party Conference Brighton hotel in 1984? Would that have been the end of Thatcherism? Would Michael Heseltine have become Prime Minister one day? What impact would that have had on the Labour Party? Would we have ever seen the birth of New Labour (already described by many political commentators as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest political legacy, completely ignoring the “What if John Smith had lived?” question)?

Social scientists will talk about the “structure-agency” question – i.e., how much was Thatcherism (and all that followed) the result of circumstances/constraints at the time (structure), versus to what extent individual will power and decisions played a role (agency).

Political scientists will talk about similar when they discuss “individualism” versus “institutionalism”.

And then there are the contradictions which are airbrushed by the passing of time and the Whig history nature of so many retrospectives. The two biggest examples of this are Margaret Thatcher’s relations with Europe, and her economic policy.

With Europe, she was the Prime Minister who took Britain in to the “Single” (note that word, not “Common”) Market. That was the greatest act of European integration ever undertaken. It is what means the European Commission constantly churns out Directives, in an attempt to harmonise regulations between different countries. It is this which has led to the “remorseless logic” of greater monetary and fiscal union that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer decries (yet is happy for the rest of Europe to do if Britain can opt out).

With economic policy, it now seems the settled view of many mainstream political commentators that the changes were painful but necessary. That she got the economics right but the social policy wrong.

But of course it’s more complicated than that.

On Europe, we cannot assume that the consequences of decisions taken were fully foreseen, or that it mattered a great deal at the time, or that it was felt that we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and find a way to make this work in the future. No decisions would ever be taken if politicians and Governments attempted to weigh everything up from every angle in some sort of political and media vacuum whilst also trying to see into the future.

On the economy, there are arguments stacked for and against. There was huge hardship suffered by millions. There were reforms that would now not be reversed but may have been badly executed. There is misreading and wilful amnesia – e.g., development corporations and enterprise zones are not laissez faire economics. Then again, isn’t it easy to pass judgement 20 odd years later? And what will your view be if you personally came off better or worse?

A word on public sector reform under her premiership: this was indeed the beginning of introducing market reforms, but also centralising power. But there have been so many more reforms since, that we need another blog to properly analyse her legacy in this field.

Finally, there is the question of whether she should have a ceremonial funeral with military honours.

Yet again, it will depend on your political leanings, not least because as with so many things in Britain, there are no concrete constitutional rules governing this.

So at the end of it all, it still comes down to your personal view – whether you look back at her in anger or in awe.

Personally for me, what is more interesting is what precedent does this set? Will all former Prime Ministers henceforth now be honoured this way? If you think next week’s funeral is right, would you like to see Tony Blair given the same honour when his time comes? And if you think Tony Blair should, would you think the same of Gordon Brown – I know plenty of people in the Labour Party who would take different views on those two individuals.

One thing is for certain – and the acres of newsprint, the hours of TV coverage and even the simple fact that I felt motivated to write a thousand words on her this morning underline this – Margaret Thatcher mattered. And she and her legacy (whatever it is, for good and bad) matters still.

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