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The Iron Lady and me…

January 7, 2012

Last night I made a rare visit (these days) to the cinema.  What drew me was the opening night of the Iron Lady.  Everyone of my generation has an opinion of Margaret Thatcher, you either like her or loathe her.  I’ve always been in the latter camp and the film didn’t change my view.

I know that some people who agree with me that Thatcher was a divisive and damaging Prime Minister are boycotting the film.  My advice to them is swallow your pride and go and see it.  You’ll be rewarded by a superb performance by Meryl Streep and will have your memory stirred about the seminal events of the 1980s.  If you’re confident about your political convictions then they shouldn’t be threatened by a short film.

The 1979 general election was the first that I watched with interest.  I was 12 and in my first year at Mountain Ash Comprehensive School.  The Cynon Valley was not the sort of place where people owned up to voting Tory. But on the back of crippling strikes, inflation and high taxation even on the small council estate where we lived some people talked about the need for change.  One house bravely displayed a Tory poster.  To counter this I asked the local Labour Party for a poster and advertised the re-election of Ioan Evans MP from my bedroom window.  It was my first party political act.

I got up early to watch the election results coverage before going to school.  Thatcher was to be Prime Minister all the way through secondary school, my time at Bristol University and my first couple of years in work.  It was my arrival at Bristol in the autumn of 1985 that first exposed me to the complete polarisation of views on Mrs T.  I had come from a community that had just been deeply scarred by the miners strike.  I was now a fully fledged political activist, though in the SDP.  At university I was befriending people from the home counties who had been to famous schools.  And many of them worshipped Mrs T.  To them she was Mrs Thatcher or the blessed Margaret.  My spitting out of the word Thatcher was considered highly amusing.

Five years later I stood in the lobby of Coopers and Lybrand (PWC today) with the admin staff watching Thatcher’s resignation on the only tv in the building.  I went back upstairs and practically skipped around the tax and audit departments, enjoying breaking the news to my colleagues.  Most of them were not pleased.  But to me it was something of a political liberation and certainly the end of an era.

The politician in me admires Thatcher as a successful operator, succeeding despite all the odds that were stacked against her inside the Tory Party.  She was a remarkable politician, helped by some luck in her enemies.  But I don’t subscribe to the view that she is a remarkable human being.  The truly great Prime Ministers such as Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill were remarkable in all senses.  Thatcher does not seem to have any cultural hinterland and there is little evidence of empathy for the feelings of others, in particular the victims of her policies.

Two decades on her political legacy is not settled history.  But for me her period in power did more harm than good.  I supported giving council tenants the right to own their homes, the taming of the union leaders and think she was right in her view that people should work hard to get on and not always look to the state for support.  But her policies crippled large sections of British industry and impoverished whole communities.  She sowed the seeds of Eurosceptic madness in the Tory Party.

A great leader would have united the country at a time of economic and social change.  But Thatcher was a divider not a unity figure.  She brought discord not harmony.  She certainly changed Britain.  In my opinion, it was not for the better.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin Yorke permalink
    January 7, 2012 11:09 pm


  2. January 7, 2012 11:49 pm

    NO NO NO

  3. January 8, 2012 12:11 am

    Yes Stephen, I recall it all too well. She raped the South Wales valleys where we lived. She reduced our communities to that of ‘beggars’. But we; my family’s main breadwinner was a master builder and stone mason; helped as much as we could to support the miners for a whole year in complete defiance of a witch hell bent on destruction of the trade unions, especially the miners, and, in particular, Arthur Scargill. The scenario was replicated in various parts of the UK.

    Her successor, John Major, was ‘the grey man’ who followed in her footsteps. He was, shall we say, overlooked…

    The Cynon valley has/had at least 50 years coal reserves but the pits were capped now and silent.

    We all suffered, the dust, smoke and grime. Health, residual effects etc… You only needed to go and look at the laundry pegged on the lines to see how dirty it was. But, did many people complain? No. Why? Because they knew the answer and many would gladly wash it and hang it out to dry knowing it was keeping our valley alive.

    How green is our valley?

    Our valley could have run it’s course; less polluting as anything the industrial revolution threw at us and we’d still have jobs and be able to participate in a cleaner coal power source of energy…

    But Thatcher had an obsession, greater than the sum of it’s parts. Her obsession was ‘to teach the working class who’s boss’!!!

  4. John S permalink
    January 8, 2012 1:00 am

    Bring back the “winter of discontent” and the IMF bail out! Those were the days! Glad to see that the LibDems are trying to drag the country back to those glorious times.

  5. paul hancock permalink
    January 8, 2012 1:55 am

    Terrible what she did to ordinary people, in particular those from the coal industry families. What hurts is the lack of compassion and care for those who didn’t have the opportunitities of those who loved her from places such as the home counties. I have a middle class career but will forever be hurt by someome interesting more in her own legacy than her own people…

    • January 8, 2012 10:02 am

      yes, I don’t think she had much time for empathy or compassion. You were either “one of us” or an enemy.

  6. Andrew H. permalink
    January 8, 2012 11:10 am

    She certainly had a Manichean world view and as a consequence was a polarising leader. Yet, as you have pointed out Stephen, she was not a complete ideologue. Given a choice between her and Blair, I would likely go for her as at least she had guiding principles and worked towards a clear objective, albeit not in a linear way. He was all about ego.

    However, I do agree that she was divisive and her attitudes served to devalue public service nad community, although I am not sure that was actually her intention.

  7. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    January 8, 2012 6:54 pm

    It’s easy to look back and be wise, but at that time we had a union movement who thought it bigger than an elected Government, who vowed to bring that elected Government down, and as we now know, was far too friendly with the Soviets. If Scargill had his way, he would have dictated policy, and that policy has thankfully been rejected by all those people lucky enough to have a vote. As you say, Maggie had problems with her own party, but this was partly because she was not one of the Establishment who were used to running the Tories. She made the mistake of staying too long, forgetting we should have Cabinet Government, like others since, and setting herself up for the inevitable fall. We cannot second guess history, but if Maggie had lost the battle with the unions, it would have been a far different country coping with the way the World has turned out to be.

    • John Rippon permalink
      January 15, 2012 2:24 am

      Amen to that Paul!

  8. Nigel Drew permalink
    January 9, 2012 10:58 am

    Stephen, I hope you will be vociferous in opposing the Tory plans to give the Witch a state funeral, (leaked in the Torygragh a couple of weeks ago).

    • January 9, 2012 3:28 pm

      I do not think Thatcher merits a state funeral. A state occasion should be an event of national unity. Recognition of Thatcher in this way would only be popular with the hard core of Tory opinion. Wellington, Gladstone and Churchill were in a different league. Significant PMs of the 20th century who did not have a state funeral are Lloyd George and Attlee, both of whom had a far higher claim to recognition at the time (and since given their lasting legacies in social policy) than Thatcher has now.

      • January 9, 2012 4:18 pm

        So why have anything to do with a party that is so similar to Thatcherite Britain? You have sold your soul my friend. What for? A few years in a coalition government that wasn’t even voted in. It is with great sadness that I post this. The Stephen I used to know was intelligent, articulate and a joy to know. You still are as far as I know having not seen you since leaving 6th form. My friendship isn’t compromised, you will always have that, but I have to tell you what the plain truth is, in my view. I would like, as a friend/campaigner/activist and advocate for various organisations, to read “The Spartacus Report” published today; a copy delivered to your office. I would appreciate your view on this. Obviously, not in public if you wish but, your view would be valuable.

    • John Rippon permalink
      January 15, 2012 2:28 am

      How about a Witch Burning?

  9. robertjessetelford permalink
    January 10, 2012 10:41 am

    Have the Tories really changed that much since the 1980s, Stephen?

    Most progressives in this country have some rather large doubts, considering their (and by implication your) actions so far in this government. What makes Liberal Democrat MPs so different?

    Speaking of the stupidity of you guys going into coalition with the Tories, have you read the last chapter of this book?

    It posits a world in which David Miliband became Prime Minister in May 2011 and Nick Clegg was heralded as a great social reformer for his securing of a double-questioned (“do you want to keep first past the post? Which voting system would you like instead?”) referendum on proportional representation.

    • John Rippon permalink
      January 15, 2012 2:36 am

      Don’t you mean 2010, Robert?

  10. February 15, 2012 1:30 pm

    How refreshing to read a ‘left-of-centre’ critique of Thatcher that does not contain mindless rewritten history or plain inaccuracies.

    Thatcher was certainly not very good at empathy. It helps to make difficult decisions eg closing down the loss-making state industries.

    I judge her leniently on that. It had to be done, Scargill was an arsehole who made it worse and Labour shirked the task as they always do.

    She was not against the poor and the working class often voted for her. Often she questioned why those at the bottom would not help themselves — and could not justify taking money off others to support them. If I had to choose between that and our nanny state…
    Perhaps one of her worst flaws, common to all conservatives at the time, was the belief in trickle-down economics. Or maybe they just oversold it.
    Had she introduced a minimum wage, perhaps people would treat her more kindly. But the Left do need their bogeyman/woman.

    From what I read of her autobiography, Thatcher never complained about working in a sexist environment. Combined with an imagined descent into dementia, these are weird subjects for a film, so I have no wish to see it.

  11. Peter Hack permalink
    April 24, 2013 9:06 am

    I think everyone on this post should review the Dennis Skinner MP speech in Parliament the night before her burial and see what has been sold off of the once nationally owned and strategic utilities of power and water; they are now owned by our competitors, Canada, France and Germany. She sold off council housing and failed to build houses adequately; the Lib Dems promised 1 million “affordable homes” (that very word affordable homes describes the injustice and iniquity of our economy and the collapse of manufacturing investment) while squandering north sea oil on consumption and not strategic investment.
    There are some facts that Stephen Williams MP needs to address while he supports a government more right wing than Mrs Thatcher and just as incompetent economically; public sector debt was 50% of GNP and private sector debt was nearly 400% of GNP.

    The fact is that Jon Rogers and Stephen Williams post 2010 have got the economics very very badly wrong and caused a recession that is deep and far reaching and failed to rebalance the economy away from private debt which is what a rise in house prices means while abjectly failing to build houses. They have collapsed the house building sector which is supported by high rents of Priced Out tenants (whose landlords drove the private sector debt to such collosal levels and nwo profiteer on the housing situation) and grotesque land prices.

    It is quite simply perverse that Stephen Williams can somehow “condemn” Mrs Thatcher and fail to have adequate integrity to address his own actions as a part of this government.

  12. Peter Hack permalink
    April 24, 2013 9:11 am

    That should have read in 2008 public sector debt was 50% of GNP and private sector debt was nearly 400% of GNP and we now know the economics of the “debt cliff” were utterly flawed but lets not have any excuses from these Liberals their own and very GREAT John Milton keynes described this in effect long ago and they have forgotten and I for one will never ever even consider voting Liberal again. Stephen Williams can not claim the title Liberal; have a good look at his voting record for he is all fine words and lacks the substance to define them in action.

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