9
Apr

Margaret Thatcher: pro-European ‘wet’ transformed by a triumphant war

The hypercautious leader who showered money on the unions was about to get the boot: the Falklands changed all that.

By Simon Jenkins

'I think on balance Thatcher did for Britain what was needed at the time.' Illustration by Daniel Pudles

‘I think on balance Thatcher did for Britain what was needed at the time.’ Illustration by Daniel Pudles

Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s most significant leader since Churchill. In 1979 she inherited a nation that was the “sick man of Europe”, an object of constant transatlantic ridicule. By 1990 it was transformed. She and her successors John Major and Tony Blair presided over a quarter century of unprecedented prosperity. If it ended in disaster, the seeds were only partly hers.

Almost everything said of Thatcher’s early years was untrue, partly through her own invention. She was the daughter of a prosperous civic leader who merely began life as a “grocer”. She went to a fee-paying school and to Oxford at her father’s expense, gliding easily into the upper echelons of student politics.

A Tory party desperate for women helped Thatcher through the political foothills to early success as an MP. Her gender led her into government and the shadow cabinet, despite Edward Heath’s aversion to her. It made her virtually unsackable as education secretary. As she said in her memoirs: “There was no one else.” When Heath fell, her promoters ran her as a stalking horse because, as a woman, they thought she could not win. Thatcher became prime minister because she was a woman, not despite it.

As leader she was initially hyper-cautious. An unclubbable outsider, she allied herself to another outsider, Keith Joseph, and his free-market set. But she regarded rightwing causes as an intellectual hobby. She was an ardent pro-European, and her 1979 manifesto made no mention of radical union reform or privatisation. It was thoroughly “wet”. On taking office she showered money on public sector unions, and her “cuts” were only to planned increases, mild compared with today’s. Yet by the autumn of 1981 they had made her so unpopular that bets were being taken at the October party conference that she would be “gone by Christmas”.

What saved Thatcher’s bacon, and revolutionised her leadership, was Labour’s unelectable Michael Foot – and the Falklands war. Whatever Tory historians like to claim, this was the critical turning point. By delivering a crisp, emphatic victory Thatcher showed the world, and more important herself, what a talent for solitary command could achieve. From then on she disregarded her critics and became intolerant of any who were “not one of us”. Read more…

As published in www.guardian.co.uk on April 8, 2013.

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