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Margaret Thatcher Anniversary

This article was commissioned by the Eastern Daily Press to mark the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's election as Prime Minister on May 3rd 1979.


Piece on Margaret Thatcher for the EDP

My abiding memory of Margaret Thatcher's political contribution is represented by a Garland cartoon which we still have at home. This shows the former PM standing in the middle of a devastated industrial wasteland over the caption "If you seek for a monument gaze around", an ironic contrast with Sir Christopher Wren's plaque in St Paul's Cathedral.

Even so some of Margaret Thatcher's achievements will stand the test of time.

It was extraordinary to be the country's first female Prime Minister. She was associated with a set of ideological views which were influential throughout the world for better or worse. Some of her industrial reforms are unlikely ever to be reversed. In education the national curriculum was an important and enduring innovation.

However the negative outcomes of her premiership are far more pervasive. Her break from the post-war domestic consensus undermined many of our society's strengths. Internationally her desire to hark back to past glories, rather than facing the challenges of the present and the future, weakened the country. Even 18 years after she resigned the consequences of her failures remain.

Her core approach was to encourage a culture of selfish individualism rather than community, mutual respect or interdependence.

She is famous for remarking that "there is no such thing as society" and for using the parable of the Good Samaritan only to illustrate the priority which she thought should be given to acquiring wealth. This "me now" society, as Neil Kinnock described it, encapsulated the values which she promoted through every aspect of policy. The "broken society" critique offered by her political successors really is the deepest hypocrisy.

The most significant consequence of this approach was economic, where she elevated the role of markets, with the least possible regulation.

She believed the myth that the operation of the "invisible hand", through which everyone pursues their own selfish interest, would create economic success for society as a whole. That was how mass unemployment became "a price worth paying", how decimation (and worse) of essential industries like coal and steel was justified, how forcing individuals to "get on their bikes" was better than offering skills training or other support.

This approach drove reduced bank regulation, demutualised building societies, and the celebration of irresponsible risk-taking in the City, with its attendant "filthy rich" bonus culture which rewarded irresponsibility.

She reduced taxation in order to diminish the role of public services such as schools, hospitals or the police. By the time the Conservatives left office in 1997 she had achieved just about the worst funded public services in the developed world, with quality to match.

She usually made these changes with an acute political sense "at least until the poll tax fiasco" and she picked her enemies with care.

The same was true in international policy where she was uninterested in international co-operation to deal with the global challenges we now face, such as climate change. For her the United Nations was a distraction and she saw everything "European" as anathema (though she compromised where she had to); she supported apartheid South Africa and Latin American dictatorships, for example under Pinochet in Chile; she always preferred militarism to political or diplomatic responses to crises.

Margaret Thatcher's passion for unfettered individualism undermined traditional Conservative "one-nation" values just as much as it attacked what she saw as the "socialism" of the trade unions, local government and the State.

However her commitment to individual rights was severely limited. She had no sympathy for gay rights and did nothing to confront racism or promote the position of women in society.

These arguments and attitudes went beyond individual policies. She was trying to create an enduring climate of opinion which honoured her own values. To that end she brought media management to the heart of 10 Downing Street, and used her newspaper allies to attack her adversaries ruthlessly.

In the end her political opponents came to believe that they could only win elections if they accepted key elements of her world view, for example on taxation and the European Union.

And so despite the major achievements since 1997 of Tony Blair's government some aspects of Margaret Thatcher's legacy were left unchallenged.

However the current financial and economic crisis has demonstrated the wrong-headedness of Margaret Thatcher's approach. Most people now accept that regulation of markets has been too weak, including under Labour since 1997. Similarly most people agree that global challenges require effective global responses.

Margaret Thatcher left a legacy of economic destruction from which Britain has only slowly been able to recover. But her deepest and most pernicious legacy is David Cameron's greatest flaw as a potential Prime Minister - a backward-looking and narrow nationalistic introversion which makes it more difficult for Britain to face up to an increasingly challenging global future.

Charles Clarke MP


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