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Thatcher Anniversary Wednesday, 28 April, 1999, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
The Thatcher legacy
Margaret Thatcher eschewed focus groups for direction
By Martin McElwee, Deputy Editor, Centre for Policy Studies

If a week is a long time in politics, then 20 years is an eternity. But 20 years after she first got elected, Margaret Thatcher still dominates British politics. And her ideas still dominate our lives. Many of the things that we now take for granted are down to her battles against bitter opposition.

Think of the '70s before her first victory. And think of how we are now.

The idea of trade union leaders saying what the government could and could not do seems strange now. But it was a reality then. Widespread strikes were a fact of life. In the 1970s, an average of 13 million working days a year were lost due to strikes. By the time Margaret Thatcher left office in the 1990, this was down to 1.9 million.

Twenty years ago, Britain was very different
The prime ministers of the 1970s had to invite union leaders to Downing Street to check that government policies were not going to be opposed by the unions. We take it for granted now that the government can do what is right for all the country, not just for the trade unions.

When the Conservatives won the 1979 election, the top rate of income tax was an incredible 83%. Rates for savers reached 98%. People would be appalled now if any government tried to raise taxes to this sort of level.

Margaret Thatcher had to fight hard to bring taxes down to a more sensible level. But she managed to bring the top rate down to 40%, and took the basic rate down too, to 25%. The notion that we should be allowed to keep what we earn now seems common sense, but it is not long ago that it was no more than Mrs Thatcher's revolutionary idea.

Equally, we now see companies like British Airways becoming internationally renowned success stories. Before Thatcher, though, they were owned by the government. They were badly managed and provided poor service. And they were stripping the taxpayer of millions and millions of pounds every year to cover the losses they were making.

Nowadays, we expect proper standards of service from them, and a good return on the shares we own in them. Not surprisingly, countries around the world have used the Thatcher reforms in this area as a model for their own state-run industries.

More recent Tory leaders have had to face frequent comparisons
Schools are another good example of how battles had to be fought for what now seems part of the furniture. In the '70s, the only thing that by law had to be taught in schools was religious education. There was no common standard at all for what else had to be taught.

Look at the situation now. The National Curriculum, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, means that all school children in England and Wales get a good grounding in the basics - English, maths, science, languages and technology.

We also take it for granted that we can get information about these schools, to find out how good they are and what their exam results are like. This information is essential in allowing parents to make a choice as to which school to send their children to. But they have only had access to these basic details since 1988, when Margaret Thatcher introduced her education reforms. The idea that parents should be allowed any choice at all is equally novel.

The lasting nature of her impact can be seen in the state of politics today. Look at the Labour Party for example, and what they are doing in the elections to the Scottish Parliament. Who would ever have thought that they would see the Labour Party going to the polls as the tax-cutting, nuclear-weapon-retaining, private-finance-supporting, crime-busting party?

These were all Thatcher's ideas. But the Labour Party found itself with no option but to embrace them. It lost four elections before it realised that the British public were not looking for ideas different from those which Margaret Thatcher put forward.

When Tony Blair finally made them realise, they retained much of the Thatcher legacy. And they won the 1997 election. New Labour owes a vast amount to Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher did not need focus groups to tell her what the British public wanted. She had a remarkable instinct for what was popular. It came from her understanding of the British people.

It is possible that her successors at the top of the Tory Party - John Major and William Hague - have suffered by comparison, because she set the standard for determination and for political achievement. She set the standard for knowing what the British people wanted and doing it.

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