|Photograph: Daily Telegraph|
Around lunchtime, on 22nd November 1990, I was informed that the then Prime Minister had resigned.
It was a day that I had for some time looked forward to. Many 13 year olds at the time would have been far more interested in Rangers’ chances of winning the Premier Division, Turtle Power, a crazy new TV cartoon series called “The Simpsons” (surely a fad?) or the all-important question of whether Pretty Woman was better than Ghost. This apparent indifference to political matters was confirmed when, in a rare show of excitement, I decided to inform everyone I could find of the “good news”. “What good news?” “Maggie Thatcher’s resigned!” To which one memorable response was “You call that good news?” (expletives removed).
Unusually, I imagine, I have had an interest in politics from at least 7 years of age. This may well have been largely the result of my grandad, who was exceptionally well informed politically with balanced and reasonable perspectives on contemporary events – and whose conversation generally focused on his analysis of the political questions of the day. But there were other reasons too; exposure does not in itself breed interest. Throughout the 1980s, even to my young mind, on the big issues Thatcher was completely and consistently wrong: on the Miners’ Strike, on Westland, in her uncritical support of Ronald Reagan over Libya, the Poll Tax, public services privatisation and Europe. No doubt partly due to others’ prejudices I began to regard her as a hugely malign influence and yet retained an odd respect for a woman who was not only able to “cut the mustard” in a traditionally male role but who was able to impose herself on her male counterparts and bend them to her will so successfully.
Like many people in 1987 I was hugely disappointed that Thatcher won another term. Living in Argyll & Bute, and managing to tap into the mood in the constituency, I had convinced myself that the SDP-Liberal Alliance would win. Thereafter, I followed political developments with close interest and, after Anthony Meyer’s failed leadership bid in 1989, felt that Thatcher’s time would soon be up.This prediction proved slightly more accurate than the previous one, and during November 1990 I was gripped by events as they unfolded.
I still find it entertaining to watch the Prime Minister “savaged by a dead sheep” – the power of which is lost on many who weren’t witness to those dramatic events.
I have no doubt this sounds rather like “The Confessions of a Teenage Political Nerd” and there would be some truth in that. The point of this is to demonstrate that, as a child who grew up in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had a huge impact on the forging of my political views and – to some degree – my personal identity. I am who I am because I am a product of a unique time; a time that itself came to be defined as the era of that largely malign and unfeeling political philosophy which can only be described adequately in one word – Thatcherism. My personal political philosophy has evolved over time, but from the outset it was marked by a determination to oppose everything that I thought Margaret Thatcher stood for.
There are of course many things that Mrs Thatcher did well. Whatever else can be said, she won the economic arguments of the day and emerged from the Falklands War with significant credit. Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, explained today that while he “opposed almost everything she did [and] though there will be many who saw her as the author of much destruction that we still mourn, much that she pulled down needed to be pulled down. She was better as destroyer of old tired institutions and lazy ways of thinking than she was as the builder of new ones; better at defining divisions than building cohesion. But probably that’s what Britain needed then. Had we on the left not grown so lazy about our addictions to the easy ways of state corporatism, she would perhaps have been less successful at so cruelly exposing their hollowness. The pre-eminent attribute in politics is courage; the moral courage to hold to the things you believe in. And this, like her or loathe her, she had in abundance.” It is undeniably true that she had the courage of convictions, which perhaps explains why I am so suspicious of conviction politicians. While Thatcher was a courageous leader who didn’t shirk from a fight, she was never one to consider the costs and ramifications. A couple of years ago I interviewed David Owen who made the claim that, whatever one’s political views, Thatcher must be considered one of the greatest political leaders of the modern era. In some respects that says more about Owen’s views on leadership than anything else, but this was echoed by Ashdown when he suggested that “if politics is the ability to have views, hold to them and drive them through to success, [Thatcher] was undoubtedly the greatest prime minister of our age, and maybe even the greatest politician."
Personally, I’d prefer to judge politicians by their legacies and in Thatcher’s case that was probably New Labour. That’s something rather hard to forgive. Was she truly a great leader? I’m not convinced; a great leader is able to take people with them – if they are unable to do that they are not leading but taking a walk. Great leaders also are able to appreciate the need to assemble, and delegate responsibly, to an effective team. Thatcher never saw the value in this, and instead used her abilities often to hinder and undermine rather than support her ministers.
On sober reflection I see that Thatcher was herself a product of a unique time and place, and of particular pressures and prejudices. I do not hold that against her. But there are some things I do resent. Firstly, I still struggle to comprehend why the UK’s first female Prime Minister did not do so much more for women’s rights. Patricia Hewitt attested to this reality several years ago, arguing that “it is a tragedy that, having become the UK's first women prime minister, she did so much to undermine the position of women in society.” Secondly, and even more difficult for me to accept, was her role in affirming and reinforcing the institutional homophobia that found expression in Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act.
Section 28 legislated to prevent the promotion of homosexuality in schools or "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". This was driven by fear-mongering in the national tabloid media about the supposed effects of some of the policies of Labour councils in London. What were essentially little more than attempts to address discrimination and inequality were represented as the start of a moral meltdown. No doubt some Conservative MPs genuinely believed the lies and bought easily into the “moral” agenda of sections of the press. Thatcher, however, had no such inclinations. She had concerns and misgivings about the legislation and opposed the demonization of gay and lesbian people. She was hardly a friend of the LGBT rights movement, but all the same she was far from a rampant homophobe. And yet, in spite of this, she stood idly by while her government introduced a nasty, shamefully homophobic Act and failed to take on the rhetoric of MPs such as Jill Knight. This passive acceptance is for me worse than the bigotry and the ill-informed knee jerk reaction of her fellow Tories: Thatcher, as a famously strong leader, failed to demonstrate her renowned strength when it mattered.
The Iron Lady? When it came to Section 28, the Lady was not for resisting the destructively intolerant views of her party’s right wing.
For me, Margaret Thatcher’s worldview can be summed up by a cartoon I read in a newspaper (from around 1989, I’d guess). She’s talking to Nigel Lawson, who has dared to come into her office uninvited. Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe are peering in from behind a door. “But Prime Minister”, he protests, “everyone’s VERY worried about the unemployed”. “I KNOW!” replies the Prime Minister, “that’s why I’m pressing ahead with tax cuts!” “TAX CUTS? What will tax cuts do for the unemployed?” asks the exasperated and confused chancellor. The reply: “They will make them WISH they had a job!”
Thatcher was no intellect, no great thinker and no team player. She refused to do anything to promote women’s equality other than provide an example of feminine success. She counted being the first scientist to enter number 10 to be of greater significance than being the first woman, which speaks volumes. That said, I imagine that anyone whose scientific achievements include the invention of whippy ice cream can’t entirely be accused of not doing something significant with their talents.
I have not looked forward to this day as I did that fateful day in November 1990. Someone’s death, even that of a political opponent, is not something in which to rejoice. I know of so many on the left, like former miner David Hopper, who feel so much hate towards her that today is a cause for celebration: I have experienced the effects of such today in the form of nasty and frankly offensive comments. This is wrong simply because unfeeling inhumanity is not most effectively dealt with through more unfeeling inhumanity; rather it is challenged through renewed compassionate activism. It is also wrong because the Margaret Thatcher whose political views I found so distasteful died many years ago. The Mrs Thatcher who died earlier today was an ill, confused and in all probability lonely old woman for whom I felt nothing but pity. When elderly people die, my thoughts are usually with their families. This case is no exception.
I have no wish to write a glowing tribute to a former Prime Minister. That is not who I am. I will praise her for her courage and mental strength, while expressing criticism of her rather mixed political legacy as do many others. In particular, it’s only fitting that credit should go where credit is due – without Margaret Thatcher I would in all probability have developed little interest in politics and I suspect my life would be the poorer for it. Again, I suspect, that is something shared by many others from all parties and therefore – even if for that alone – thank you Mrs Thatcher.