The Iron Lady has hit the cinemas, Meryl Streep has hit the winners podium and the movie has been a hit at the box office. I haven’t seen it yet. But it’s at the top of my ‘must watch’ list. I’m intrigued by how such a story might be told. The many reviews I’ve read seem mixed. But as a child of the 80’s, and politically interested from an early age, I grew up knowing little different to a world dominated by Thatcherism. Her policies still, arguably, dominate the country today. The current recession could, arguably, be referred to as the product of Thatcherism.
I first heard the word Thatcher as a six year old in a school classroom. The teacher explained what a General Election was. She described the two candidates. I think she was probably pretty thin on policies. The key fact was that one of them was a woman, and that we’d never had a woman Prime Minister. I remember at the time wondering what exactly was the big deal of having a woman PM. We had a woman queen*, and a queen was far more important that a politician.
We were given the vote in that classroom. I voted for Callaghan, the incumbent Labour PM. He was clearly going to get a drubbing judging by the inability of my contemporaries to keep their voting intentions secret. I felt sorry for him. My sympathy vote counted for little. He was given the predictable drubbing. A few days later Thatcher was elected for real. A ‘frothing right winger’ who had been accidentally elevated to the position of Conservative leader due to a disorganised protest vote was Prime Minister, and the UK would never be quite the same again.
Thatcher was and is divisive. Love her or hate her. Although personally I neither love nor hate her. For me there are two Thatchers. The Iron Lady who ruled with an iron fist from 1979 to 1987. Crushing the militant and destructive unions that were crippling the country. The Iron Lady who stood up to terrorism at home and who faced down despotism in the south Atlantic. The Iron Lady who gave the people of the UK greater financial opportunities. She was also part and parcel of the political process that destroyed swathes of British industry, who plunged millions into unemployment and poverty and who set us on a course for levels of inequality not known since the worst excesses of the Victorian era.
Then there was the Thatcher of 1987 to 1990. A woman who had been ploughing forward at top speed for so long, it didn’t occur to her that she’d pretty much arrived at the land she’d promised. She didn’t know how to stop. She didn’t seem to understand the need to consolidate. She didn’t grasp the consequences of winning the Cold War, and Britain’s changing position within the world at large and Europe in particular. The didn’t seem to understand the changing dynamics of the world around her. But more than anything, she didn’t seem to grasp the fact that at home, with domestic policies, you can divide and conquer for only so long. A country with too many divisions is in trouble. Thatcher was in trouble. She’d be toppled by those around her. They could see the writing on the wall, even if she couldn’t.
The 1980’s were good for me. I was a kid. Boom and bust means little providing you still get your pocket money. I did my paper rounds and Saturday jobs and got by. By the time Thatcherism hit me, it was almost over. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Community Charge, or the Poll Tax. In theory, a perfectly fair concept. In practise, it was implemented in the most ridiculous, unenforceable, unfair and laughable manner. I moved to the borough of Wandsworth for the two years I was elibible to pay up. The first year I had to pay £140. The second year it was zero. Elsewhere in the country people were having to pay hundreds upon hundreds of pounds. Thatcher would never repeal the Poll Tax. And the country would never vote for a party supporting it. It was either goodbye for Thatcher in 1990, or goodbye to the Tories in 1991. The Tory party, understandably, chose the former.
So I look forward to the film. But I do wonder one thing. When all is said and done and the tomes of history have spoken, how will Thatcher be recorded. My photo below isn’t the best I’ve ever taken of Big Ben and Westminster. But it’s always a very awe inspiring sight. It’s so representative of London, of the UK, of the might of the British Empire, of the glories of the Victorian era, the dominance of the UK in a world now long gone. I often stare at it and wonder how on earth this building once came to be the centre of the world. How a third of the world’s population had their fates, to greater or lesser extents, determined by people working in that building.
Britain lost it’s position at the top of the global tree a long time ago. Well….only within my grand fathers lifetime, so perhaps not so long ago. But the slide down the tree, gradual as it is, will continue. Brazil recently overtook the UK for 6th place in the list of the world’s largest economies. We’ll continue falling. We’ve been sliding since the end of World War Two. But for a fleeting moment, Thatcher stopped the decline. We actually climbed up a few rungs. We punched above our weight again, albeit temporarily. Britain seemed great again.
I don’t doubt that, for better or worse, Thatcher will be recorded as one of the great British prime ministers. But might she also be remembered as the last great British prime minister? Along with the likes of Pitt, Attlee, Asquith, Churchill, Lloyd George and MacMillan? Of course, there is one prime minister I haven’t mentioned, who might lay claim to being the last great British PM. Like Thatcher, Blair won three elections. But I would regard him as being an important PM, at a crossroads in British history, overseeing – nay, guiding – the country once again into decline.