Off to see The Iron Lady some tomorrow or Friday with my stepmother, who rarely gets out. There have been mixed reactions to the film, including the comment that releasing it before the good lady has passed on is rather odd. My theory is that is was conceived, approved and planned several years ago, and the, somewhat cynical, expectation was that Maggie would have popped her clogs long before the film was released. Those who have seen it say both that it is a tour de force by Meryl Streep as the lady herself (or The Devil Incarnate as those even ever-so-slightly on the left like to call her) but that there is something a little out of kilter about it all, as well as one or two bizarre in accuracies. I understand the film takes the form of a woman with dementia looking back on her life in her more lucid moments, including the Falklands War and the Brighton IRA bombing, so it is a little odd not decently to wait until she had shuffled off her mortal coil.
I am neither ‘of the Left’ or ‘of the Right’ and most certainly try not to belong to any kind of glee club shouting the virtues of this, that or t’other politician. But I must come out and say quite unequivocably that Maggie, Mrs Thatcher, Mrs T or however you want to refer to her stood head and shoulders above the other politicians of her generation and that she and her achievements will be remembered not just in years to come but in centuries to come. She will, I believe, be numbered among the great Prime Ministers alongside William Pitt the Younger, Sir Robert Peel, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone, Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. (Incidentally, I looked up a list of PMs to familiarise myself with who was actually a Prime Minister, and I was astounded at how many come from the ‘aristocracy’. It seems that it wasn’t until the beginning of the last century – strictly the last century: for me that still seems to mean the 19th century – that ‘commoners’ became Prime Minister.) Our recent PMs, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will, I’m afraid to say, be mere footnotes in history textbooks, if they are lucky.
I realise that Mrs Thatcher can divide Britain almost like no other political figure and that what I have referred to as her achievements are anything but to many others. For example, she emasculated the trade unions and brought them into line, she revitalised the economy by introducing a more modern way of looking at business and the role of the state (there would never have been Tony Blair and the revival of Labour were it not for Thatcher and Blair cannily building on attitudes she had established) and she managed to keep Britain out of much of the lunacy which passes for the ‘European Project’. One of her few failings was not realising that the best time to quit is when you are ahead, and so her fall from power was in many ways pathetic.
But she had real conviction: none of this phoney litany of ‘I’m passionate about…’ and ‘I’m committed to…’ which is intended to pass for principle and conviction these days. She believe in ‘sound money’ as everyone else should do. In the great Keynes v Hayek debate, she was most definitely in Hayek’s camp and her economic princples, like his, like his, was simple: if you spend more than you earn, you will eventually pay the price. Nothing wrong with that. (Yes, certainly there is virtue in Keynes’ view of the virtue of spending to create work and grow the economy, but it can always only be part of a solution, not the solution. Sooner or later the bills have to be paid, and if not by you, then by your children and grandchildren.)
As for seeing off the unions, you had to remember the shambles that Britain had become after the Sixties to understand why that was so necessary. I am a firm supporter of trade unions – the Law Society and the British Medical Association are nothing but unions by another name – and someone must most certainly protect the interests and wellbeing of those who are for whatever reason to weak to do so themselves. But by the Seventies, our British unions were reacting to a bygone age: they had been born of the era of heavy industry, the factory fortnight, wages delivered weekly in little brown envelopes, a true ‘working class’ and the country was moving one. It had no heavy industry to speak of, coal was cheaper when imported, and the unions themselves were beginning to behave like the industrial fatcats they purported to despise. They were, almost to a man – there were one or two outstanding unionists such as Brenda Dean, but it was still a man’s world – almost old-style Leninists who, at heart, were campaigning for a proletarian state. This at a time when the Left in other European countries had long since jettisoned such old-fashioned ideology and were firm Social Democrats. And, ironically, young Margaret Roberts, as she was, of Grantham, had, despite her father’s ownership of two grocery stores, far, far more in common with ‘the working class’ – for which read aspirant working class – and the ‘ordinary man and woman’ than her rich and titled predecessors at No 10 Downing St. That is probably why so many identified with her, accepted her and supported her. And because she was, while leading the party its backbone, that is why the Tories simply collapsed into a sorry heap once regicide had been committed and – John Major’s frankly bizarre election victory in 1992 notwithstanding (Major didn’t win, Neil Kinnock lost) that is why they didn’t get even a sniff of power for another 13 years. And even then they could only manage it by forming a coalition with the Lib Dems. (That, ironically, was, I am prepared to argue, an incredible stroke of luck in that the more outrageous Conservative dinosaurs were forced to keep quiet if they wanted their party to form the government. I doubt there would have been stable government in in Britain had David Davis become Tory leader: although he is a much different man to Edward Heath, Britain would now be going through a similar nonsense as it did in the Heath/Wilson years. I’ll maybe argue that another time.)
Love her or loathe her – and I do neither – only a dishonest fool would deny that Margaret Thatcher was a one-off and did more for the country while leader than many a PM before or since. Now for the hate mail.