If any single person can be described as the modern-day marmite of British politics, Margaret Thatcher would fit the bill reasonably well. A leader as divisive as they come, but love it or hate it, let it never be said that she did not change the landscape of British politics. This blog post aims to assess both her time as prime minister, and her legacy.
It can be said that Thatcher was driven by a belief that she knew what was best for the country-HER. David Cameron certainly thought so: “Margaret Thatcher didn’t just lead our country – she saved our country,”. She adhered to her policies, popular or not, and was driven to unite the British people by including them in her personal life, such as using the royal “we” and sharing the birth of her grandchild, for example. She portrayed herself as an ordinary woman in an extraordinary job.
In terms of her legacy, it’s been over 25 years since her departure from 10 Downing Street but even in her grave, she remains a divisive person- is her legacy something we are proud to stand for, or something we despise? From a feminism viewpoint, she was the first woman to not only be elected as party leader, but the first female prime minister this country has ever seen. Going further, the ONLY elected female to take up the role of prime minister, considering today’s Theresa May was not elected by the British public. Taking a notch higher, Thatcher’s leadership spanned an impressive 11 years, from 1979 to 1990. Her supporters were proud to be “Thatcherites”, and she held onto the connection to the ordinary people otherwise disinterested in mainstream politics, sing her modest upbringing and background.
Her controversial nickname, the iron lady, bequeathed to her by the Russians, does not paint a positive image when it comes to emasculating oneself to fit the role, and it must be said that only four other women were in cabinet positions in her time but she used it to her advantage, she liked it… and it fit her – she wasn’t one to stand back and let things happen, she was firm in all she did. Anyone who thought or to this day thinks this can only use her ‘the lady’s not for turning’ speech. Her role in smashing the figurative glass ceiling is not always well founded, and remains a debate for another day.
To understand the complexities surrounding Margaret thatcher, it’s imperative that we understand Britain as it was in 1979. Despite her loudest critic’s complaints, Thatcher did not create the north-south divide; it has been proven that employment opportunities were more available in the north than in the south. This was something she tried to resolve, but at times either unwittingly exacerbated the problem, or made ineffective steps and proposals to treat it. The most important aspect is to consider that despite her failings in eliminating this divide, the creation of this inequality is not something her legacy bears.
Her appointment to the role of prime minister saw her bring about a much-needed revolution, or at least a change that previous governments tried to do-attempt to compensate for the decline of resources since the Victorian era, such as coal and cotton. Her first two years in Downing Street saw the rise of oil prices, the rise of inflation owing to the twofold rise in VAT, and the increase in interest rates to reduce the growth in money supplies. The damage was felt almost immediately, and potentially greater than anticipated by government. The north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside, the West Midlands, Scotland, and Wales, regions felt the blows of the thatcher government strongly, having strongly relied on these Victorian era industries and resources. The main source of income in these regions was mining for coal, iron, steel, and the cotton trade. It is an understatement to say that this was not by far a popular move on Thatcher’s part, and the effects of the resulting mass unemployment can still be seen in these areas.
On to a more popular change, Thatcher then pushed out her process of “right to buy”, the huge-scale selling of council houses, and financial deregulation. This was a popular move in southern England where house prices were comparatively higher than other areas of the UK. This policy meant a termination to mortgage queues and the opportunity to buy property at relatively more affordable prices. Thatcher was by no means the originator of private home ownership but she did, more than any government has ever, boost the idea of owning your own home, making it desirable, as part of her ‘understanding’ of the average ‘ordinary’ Britons. In simpler terms, many of the first-time buyers, council tenants, in the Thatcher era could buy a home at a hefty discount on this scheme, bringing optimism to those living in council residences. There were negative consequences though, such as the slow reduction in the amount of social housing, which as a country we are still short on, and the lengthy waiting lists for social housing as a direct result. The “feel good” factor this scheme created boosted morale and confidence in the housing market, and many today may take for granted the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, made available by Thatcher.
It is crucial to discuss the so-called “big bang” effect which accelerated the move from manufacturing to financial services in the City’s economy. Thatcher’s government saw this move as a logical step, exploiting the magnitude and the international reputation of the City of London, as there was a proportional benefit in this area and field. This meant that by the late 1980s, half of the country was enjoying boom conditions, while on the other hand, the other half was still reeling from the recession of the early 1980s, a factor which arose before her time as a prime minister.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that Thatcher’s legacy does remain today, the changes she made to the economy provided the framework for modern living and politics. But delving deeper, what is the nature of this legacy? Narrowing this down to arguably, two of her most defining policies, the right to buy scheme changed the lives and expectations of many individuals, and laid down the foundation of affordable housing as an attainable social change, and economical revolution that saw a change from manufacturing into financial service brings us to the prosperous Britain we know today.
But to turn this on its head, the shutdown of the mines has left a few generations of mining communities without work, and the right to buy scheme has highlighted a shortage of social housing. Thatcher did change Britain and whether for the better or for worse, Britain continues to be driven by such a division. For every Thatcherite, out there, there are just as many critics. This is due to her policies always effecting one side more than the other.
The answer to this question, unfortunately, is entirely subjective, as one would expect for such a divisive person. What often benefits a class of people in politics is likely at the expense of another class or cohort of people.