Last night’s ‘Thatcher Years’ event at my former stomping ground of King’s College offered some fascinating insight into the Iron Lady from two individuals who worked extremely closely with her throughout her premiership. Addressing the audience were former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler, and John Redwood MP, who formerly headed up Thatcher’s Policy Unit and was responsible for driving through much of her privatisation programme.
More than any other former Prime Minister, Thatcher divides opinion. Depending on which side you sit on, she either set Britain free to enjoy unprecedented levels of liberty and prosperity, or unleashed a wave of materialistic individualism with a dash of little Englander thrown in for good measure, spawning a consumerist culture that was a contributory factor in the economic travails of the late 2000s.
Both speakers argued that Thatcher’s relevance to the challenges faced by today’s Government is limited, and that it is the job of historians to challenge the myths and legends that surround her and her legacy.
However, the anecdotes the speakers offered about life in her inner circle and their assessment of her character made for interesting listening and in some cases challenge the existing orthodoxy. Of particular interest were the following propositions:
- Thatcher occasionally lacked self-confidence, and had to pump herself up before any big speech or debate. These were extremely traumatic occasions for her.
- She did not have a pre-meditated plan upon her entry into government in 1979, and what followed was often reactionary rather than an adherence to an overarching strategy.
- She was highly constitutional, and did not ignore her Cabinet. She had an awareness of parliamentary process that was not present in the Blair years.
- She was materialistic and admired people who did well by that measure.
- As a child of the 1950s, She had a mistrust of Germany and thought France unreliable.
- Despite being, or perhaps because she was the UK’s first prime minister, she had a deep seated fear that people would see her as weak because she was a woman.
- She had a flirtatious relationship with Ronald Reagan, and would put on a special red dress when meeting with him.
- She had a strong sense of doing things properly. For example, she refused to tip off journalists ahead of big policy announcements, as is now common practice, despite the head start it would have given her on her opponents.
- Her “no such thing as society” quote was taken out of context, and is misinterpreted. Her real aversion was to the sociological approach that compartmentalises society, and she sought to draw up clear dividing lines between society and the state.
She cared little for the media, and it was with great reluctance that she sat through daily briefings with Press Secretary Bernard Ingham.
Whatever your opinion on Thatcher, the points raised at the event provide some fresh angles for the on-going debate over her legacy and relevance to contemporary politics.
By PLMR Senior Account Executive Tim Knight.