Feature: Thatcher’s political birthday

By Ian Dunt

Thirty-four years ago today, Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party. Four short years later she was in power.

That’s the actual number of years it has been. But under any political analysis, it was an era ago.

For the left, it was the beginning of the end. By the time it returned to power it was unrecognisable – with Tony Blair’s smile and Peter Mandelson’s intense relaxation with people becoming “filthy rich” replacing strikes and class consciousness. He (misquoted) comment that “there is no such thing as society” became a byword for the philosophical battle the left was forced to fight.

Thousand – probably millions – of Britons will never forgive her for some of the actions she embarked upon. One of her most ferocious and irresponsible statements -that striking miners were “the enemy within” – is still recalled with anger and indignation. Whole British industries were destroyed, and new ones created.

For the right, it was a revolution, and her name is still mentioned in almost hallowed tones as the woman who dragged Britain out of the slippery slope towards a socialist nightmare.

“She raised the country from its knees,” former home secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard says. “She saved it from what looked like a period of inexorable and steep decline.”

Under her watch, Britain turned into a service economy. It went to war with Argentina over the Falklands Islands – in a move which ignored American concerns in a manner Blair would have never countenanced. And, it’s probably worth mentioning, all this was done by a woman.

“There was some debate about whether a women could become prime minister,” former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind says. “She ended that debate.

“So much so, in fact, that after she had been PM for ten years one small child was heard asking if a man could be prime minister.”

Howard concurs. “She demonstrated that anything was possible.”

It was that very combination of her gender and her brutal attitude to politics which constituted her image as the famous iron lady. Some feminist scholars are critical of this, positing that a male-dominated political system forced its female inhabitants to become more masculine to survive. That wasn’t an opinion she shared.

“The original term ‘iron lady’ was used by a Soviet magazine as a term of insult,” Rifkind says. “Characteristically, she took it as a badge of pride. When her statue was unveiled some years ago and it was made of bronze and she implied it was the wrong metal.”

To some Tories, it was this inflexibility which ultimately led to her downfall. There’s still some considerable discomfort within the party today about exactly what kind of pedestal she should be placed upon. She will never lose her status as the leader who racked up election win after election win – and succeeded in forcing through real change along the way.

But members also know she is associated with a cold, brutal time which many people would rather forget. Her statements on society and striking British labourers seem odd and unpleasant now. Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, is universally viewed as a travesty within mainstream political opinion. And her diatribes against fellow Tories who were nervous at her radicalism often reverted to innuendo about their masculinity.

“As a general principle I’m a little disturbed with any political philosophy which puts ideology before pragmatism,” Rifkind says.

“You need principles but you must always test each policy against the practical effects of following it. What Thatcher tended to do was start from basic principles and plough ahead. Most of the time she was right. Sometimes she wasn’t.”

Other Tories view her adaptation of Conservative policy as a sign of the party changing with the times, in a similar manner to David Cameron’s current project with the Conservative brand.

“Thatcher was adapting Conservative principles to meet the needs of the final quarter of the last century,” Howard says. “Cameron is adapting them to meet needs of the beginning of the new century.”

And for those who entered politics well after her reign ended, such as current shadow media secretary Jeremy Hunt, who only entered parliament four years ago, its Thatcher’s determination which still influences them.

“Margaret Thatcher inspired me to believe that politicians really can change the direction of a country if they behave with conviction and integrity,” he says. “The challenges faced by a future Conservative government may well be as great as those she faced, which is why it is particularly important to learn the lessons of that period.”

With politics increasingly taking on a centrist streak despite the best efforts of the financial crisis, Thatcher’s legacy seems remote and distant. It wasn’t only her politics or her attitude which alienate modern Britons from her rule, but also her sheer strength of belief in a political system which has now become obsessed with “what works” rather than what is right.

But like her or loathe her, we all live in the country Thatcher helped create.