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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
The Thatcher confrontation...
Fergus Hewison
Fergus Hewison
The Politics Show North East and Cumbria

Margaret Thatcher
A voice in the wilderness...

It was exactly 20 years ago this week, that Margaret Thatcher arrived in the North East, determined to administer her own brand of shock therapy to the region's ailing economy. But a confrontation with a man carrying the fears of thousands over employment in the region, took her off guard.

Mrs Thatcher was at the height of her powers in 1987.

She had won three general elections - one just a few months earlier - and had triumphed, not only in the Falklands, but also over the miners.

She seemed, to many, invincible.

On 16 September that year, she arrived on Teesside to launch the new Teesside Development Corporation.

This was to be a body, she believed, that would deliver a dose of much needed entrepreneurial common sense - bypassing the public sector and bringing new jobs and investment.

Walk this way...

So in true Thatcher style, clutching the all important handbag, the Iron Lady embarked on what become known as the "Walk in the Wilderness", striding across the devastated post industrial landscape on the banks of the Tees.

It was one of the defining moments of her premiership.

The woman, whose policies were blamed for the disappearance of thousands of jobs in heavy industry, was to take on her critics in typically defiant mood.

Fletcher v Thatcher

It was during a walkabout that Mrs Thatcher and Eric Fletcher's paths crossed.

It was one of those great unscripted moments when politicians meet the public on more or less equal terms.

Hearing of her visit to Teesside, Eric had gone to confront her with evidence of just how difficult it was to get work at that time.

Pushing through the crowd, he showed her his thick folder of unsuccessful job applications, saying since February he had made "over 1,000 applications in this area alone".

Fletcher confronts Thatcher
An unexpected confrontation for Margaret Thatcher

Mrs Thatcher told him he would have to re-train because there was a lack of available unskilled work and times had changed.


Eric was one of thousands of people out of work on Teesside in 1987.

Steelworks, shipyards, factories and mines were closing, and across Tees Valley almost 19% of people of working age did not have a job.

Unemployment had already reached its high water mark of the post war years.

But the number of people out of work was still at levels not seen since the 1930s.

Now, 20 years on from Margaret Thatcher's visit, unemployment in the Tees Valley area is still considered to be high, at just under four per cent.

Winners and Losers

So, you may ask, who won?

Well on the day itself, you could say it was a draw between Eric and Mrs Thatcher.

In the long term, Eric retrained - as the then Prime Minister had suggested - and found a job.

Looking at the wider picture, the Teesside Development Corporation disbanded in 1998, claiming to have created thousands of new jobs, developed huge areas of derelict land, and brought in millions of pounds of investment.

But it ended in controversy, with some critics saying it acted in a high handed manner, wasted large amounts of money, and did not achieve many of its objectives.

For the Tories, "Mrs T" remains an iconic, and yet for some, problematic figure.

The bitterness many people in the region feel towards her is one reason why the party remains in the electoral wilderness in this part of the world.

That is all on the Politics Show on Sunday 16 September 2007 at 12:00 BST - with Richard Moss...

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Margaret Thatcher gets more than she bargained for on a visit to, what was, an industrial wasteland in the North East.


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