|You are in: Special Report: 1999: 04/99: Thatcher Anniversary|
Monday, 3 May, 1999, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Mixed record of the Iron Lady
By Political Editor Robin Oakley
Twenty years on from her first great success, Lady Thatcher is still capable of creating turbulence in the party she led to three successive election victories.
So dominant was her leadership, so potent was is its enduring appeal to many of the activists she drew into the party , that the merest suggestion from William Hague and Peter Lilley that it is time to move on from some of her ideals and slogans has landed them with a crisis of party management.
Engaged in a crucial test of his own strength of purpose over Kosovo, the current Labour Prime Minister has openly expressed his admiration for her drive and certainty and has consulted her on war leadership.
Such policies as the sale of council houses, the privatisation of the nationalised industries and the acceptance of the free market, bitterly contested as she drove them through, have become common currency among British parties.
Labour has reversed few of the trades union laws her governments pushed through in an effort, as she used to put it, to give back to managers the right to manage.
Determination was the keynote of Margaret Thatcher's premiership.
After Edward Heath, in his "Selsdon Man" incarnation had first seemed to promise the rigorous market-based Toryism of which she approved and had then shied away from it and after her right-wing mentor Keith Joseph had shown himself unwilling and tactically unfitted to seek the Tory crown, she resolved to go for it herself.
She won the leadership on the basis of strong performances as an economic spokesman in the latter days of Heath but then found herself presiding over a shadow cabinet dominated by those she came to call "the Wets".
Many felt she moved too fast on union reform as she and the likes of Norman Tebbit sought to cure the "British disease" of industrial unrest.
Famously she once half-joked that she hadn't got time for arguments within the Cabinet: "I've only got time to explode and have my way". As she went she purged her team of the Heathite moderates and of any other doubters.
She quarrelled with strong figures like Nigel Lawson, whom she alienated by preferring the counsel of her economic adviser Sir Alan Walters, and, famously, with Michael Heseltine over Westland.
She sought a politically-compliant Whitehall machine, inquiring in advance of key appointments: "Is he one of us?" When she finally sacked Sir Geoffrey Howe, ideologically her most loyal lieutenant , provoking a backlash on Europe which was prove her undoing, he was the last survivor of her first Cabinet. All the rest had gone.
They told her that she could not hope to tame the unions: that was best left to a Labour government. But she did it.
They told her that even with her handbag-swinging style she could not secure a rebate on Britain's contribution to the Common Market Budget, and she won back a slice of what she insisted on calling "our money". They told her after the Argentine invasion that she could not possibly hope to mount an expedition so far away and win back the Falklands, but she did.
Friends and foes abroad
Thanks in part to the relationships she developed with her ideological soulmate Ronald Reagan and with the Soviet Union's President Gorbachev, the "Iron Lady" as a Moscow newspaper once christened her, became a world figure.
Certainly she succeeded by her strong leadership style, by the Falklands War and by engineering a considerable economic recovery in lifting Britain's standing in the world. But at home and abroad she won respect rather than love, making few friends in the Commonwealth, for example, with her attitude to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The price of conviction
The downside of her "conviction politics", the slogans about "Victorian values" and her declaration that "there is no such thing as society" was that she came to believe in her own invincibility and became careless of the need to take the people, and worried MPs in her own party, along with her.
That led to the political disaster of the poll tax, with many MPs believing that they could not be elected while it existed and that it would not be scrapped so long as she was there.
Her restless, almost Maoist revolutionary march through the institutions of British society (although she never went as far in "privatising" the health and education services as her true believers would have liked her to do ) made her enemies.
And at a time when the national and Parliamentary mood was different on Europe many became convinced that her strident Euro-scepticism was taking things too far for Britain's good.
Friend and foe agree that Lady Thatcher was one of the dominant political figures of the century. Few prime ministers, after all, attain their own "ism". She has changed the nature not only of her own party but of others too.
Her privatising policies have made her an enduring icon in Eastern Europe. Few European politicians have ever been so capable of drawing American audiences.
Opinion polls show that people never subscribed with enthusiasm to Thatcherite values, but they did respond to her strong leadership, to her populist streak and to her raising of Britain's status in the world.
She saw the world with the black and white certainties of a tabloid news editor and she knew instinctively how to put across her point. You did not get interviews with her as often as you may with Tony Blair, but she made sure that when you did there was a story in it, probably accompanied by a finger-wagging lecture if, by mistake, you pressed the wrong button.
Lady Thatcher's legacy to her own party may be more problematic. She led them to great success. But she turned the Conservatives too from a pragmatic, power-seeking party concerned chiefly with the getting and holding of power to an ideological party fascinated by winning arguments.
The Euro-scepticism which she engendered with her famous Bruges speech in 1988 spawned the Tory divisions on Europe which dogged the party through the Major years and which still endure. Miscalculation over Europe led to her downfall and many of the zealots in her party have never forgiven those responsible, or themselves for letting it happen. That historical factor complicates the Euro-rows to this day.
Now as William Hague somewhat clumsily seeks to take his party back to the centre ground of politics where most elections are won, the Thatcherite legacy and the continuing dominance of her personality is proving an almost insurmountable handicap. She made the Tories for 20 years. But she is helping to unmake them now.
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