Margaret Thatcher in perspective

Margaret Thatcher is dead.

There are already celebrations, and there are already those taking offence at these celebrations (as if much of England did not already celebrate burning the effigy of another controversial figure every 5th of November).

Of course, it is not odd that there are celebrations at the death of any divisive political figures; it is surprising that there are not more.

And already there are paradoxes, if not contradictions.  The Telegraph, which routinely invokes freedom of expression for its journalism and blogging, and in defiance of “Leveson”, closed down comments on its Thatcher articles as they were “vile”.  In contrast, some on the Left, who last week complained in absolute terms of Osborne and Cameron making political points out of death, were jubilant in the death of Thatcher.  One’s response to the death of Thatcher seemed to be the general exception to whatever rules which could otherwise apply.

However, in terms of policy, the record of Thatcher was a lot more mixed than either admirers or haters will ever admit.

For example: the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE) is, in practical terms, the most important civil liberties statute of modern times.  It may be that, say, the Human Rights Act of 1998 has more overall significance; but it is PACE which on an everyday-basis limits the excesses of police power, and not any heady invocation of human rights.

Similarly, it was under Thatcher that the Single European Act was signed, the most momentous of all transfers of powers from the United Kingdom to what has now become the European Union.  And, for anyone sentimental about “national sovereignty”, it was Thatcher who nodded through the extensive placement on British soil of US nuclear weaponry, the possible deployment of which was  outside the practical control of Her Majesty’s government.

Thatcher also consistently went against her own Tory hardliners: she resolved the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe issue (in a fashion); she supported the Anglo-Irish Agreement; and she promoted a constructive dialogue with Gorbachev, when the US hawks warned otherwise.

All this, and her government also defeated a Fascist junta – something not many prime ministers can claim.

This is not to say her government was a good thing.  But it is to say that (at least until 1988 and the loss of Whitelaw from the cabinet) her government was far more pragmatic than ideological.  Even the fights she chose to pick – for instance, against a Scargill-led NUM – were done in a tactical manner.

After 1988, the arrogance of a third election victory set in.  We were told a “community charge” was not a poll tax.  The later Lawson budgets promoted a myth of economic progress which flatly ignored the reality of a structurally weak economy cross-subsided by North Sea oil.  A now-forgotten nurses’ strike was used by a hapless Tory health minister to show the merits of confrontation for its own sake.  The Thatcher government became self-consciously “Thatcherite” and so soon lost its power.

There were always parts of “Thatcherism” which did not quite add up.  The emphasis on social mobility by self-reliance could encourage particular individuals (of whom I was one, going from a council estate and comprehensive school to Oxford and the Bar); but it was hardly a universal panacea.  Not everyone could “get on a bike”.

However, it would appear few of Thatcher’s actual policies were ever reversed, even when those who detested her had large overall majorities in parliament.  No politician has dared repeal the substance of her trade union policy.  There has been no return of exchange controls.

And as regards “privatisation”, her mere asset sales to shareholders were nothing compared to the Heath-Robinson “private finance initiatives” of both the Tory and Labour governments which followed.  Almost all of what can be called “privatisation” (and which will cost taxpayers a fortune for decades to come) was done by Tory and Labour politicians after 1990 on a scale unimaginable by Thatcher, and in a radically different way.  And it still continues.

The policies of Thatcher were in part a continuation of the Labour government beforehand (especially the post-1976 economic policy) and they were in turn largely continued by Major, Blair and Brown afterwards.  Her governments were generally pragmatic until around 1988.  In some ways, though not every way, she did what any prime minister of the 1980s would have done.

But on her death today, the hate felt towards her was stark in its expression.  As I type this, many people are having parties to celebrate her death, some 23 years after she had any control over policy.

Historians will one day explain how Thatcher was just another pragmatic politician, even with her strident and polarising rhetoric; but they will  need to explain the sheer hate too.


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