‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’, the catchy tune sung by Judy Garland and the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, is currently on the rise in the charts, in the wake of the death of Baroness Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’ who was Britain’s first and so far only female Prime Minister, as well as the longest serving one in recent times. A Facebook group was set up years ago dedicated to promoting this song the day the ex-PM dies, in response to the extreme criticism that Thatcher received during her time as PM in the 1980’s, a time of economic turbulence and extremism. There could be no denying that those were troubled years, and perhaps the pinnacle of the decline in post-war Britain. So what did Thatcher do that was so divisive? Why is she still a controversial figure, to this day and to her grave?
The general consensus amongst the electorate was that in 1979, Britain was a failed state, the ‘sick man’ in post-war Europe: 3-day weeks, continuous and unregulated strikes, constant power cuts, and the culture of hands-out-exploiting-welfare-state. The ‘winter of discontent’ (1978-1979), in which there were a series of strikes co-ordinated by public sector Trade Unions was deeply embarrassing for the country – uncollected rubbish was left in the street for weeks, loss of power happened regularly and even human bodies were left in the streets as the Undertakers went on strike. With all this in mind, were the policies and actions of Thatcher really that radical and wrong? When she came into power in 1979, her promise was to clear away all the troubles of socialism and bring back the ‘great’ in Great Britain.
She immediately set out to reduce the influence of the state and bolster the economy by promoting free-market economics, famously declaring that ‘it is businesses, not government, who make money’. She believed that there was a spoon-feeding culture in the UK and that it was important for individuals to get up and work, citing ‘pennies don’t fall from Heaven – they have to be earned, here on Earth’. Tax and spending cuts were soon implemented, alongside the introduction of several Parliamentary Bills, designed to curb Trade Union militancy; state industries such as transport and power were sold and privatised; and most importantly council homes were sold to homeowners, enabling many to climb onto the property ladder for the first time. It is a wonder why the opposition opposed these reforms – many say that Labour hated the fact Thatcher was removing the power of government and giving working people more power over their lives – ironic isn’t it?
However clever this move was, politically and economically, there were drawbacks. The increasing wealth of the City of London and the enginered decline of traditional industries such as mining lead to mass unemployment, and financial insolvency in those sectors. This is what fundamentally lead to people disliking Thatcher, even to this day, as many felt she ruined the country and ruined peoples lives. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it was ultimately a successful move. The country was directed away from the old manufacturing industries, now subject of intense international competition, but managed to re-establish itself as a leading global economy with a booming financial sector located in the City of London. To this day, despite the criticisms of Thatcher, we have yet to return to the mining and shipping country we once were.
Thatcher deeply distrusted the Trade Unions. No one is denying that Trade Unions are good – they are an essential part of our democracy and key to ensuring that the voice of working people are heard. However, the militancy and power that Trade Unions wielded in the 70’s and 80’s was beyond monstrous – it was purely undemocratic. The year long strike in 1984 of the National Union of Mineworkers, called for by their leader Arthur Scargill, despite him failing to call for a ballot, showed clearly how the Unions thought they could impose their views undemocratically on the government. Having seen her party defeated over power cuts during Edward Heath’s premiership, Thatcher was determined not to make the same mistake, and had built up considerable reserves of coal in the years leading up to the strike. This meant the strike was defeated, and it lead to dramatic declines in the coal industry and influence of the Trade Unions.
Thatcher was also successful abroad. The victory over the Falkland Islands in 1982, the early identification of Mikhail Gorbachev as a future Soviet Leader and thus her involvement in bringing the Cold War to an end all helped put Britain back on the world map, giving it a renewed sense of its role as a global influence.
But, as with all politicians, she was not without her faults. Her infamous ‘Poll Tax’ in her third term of office led to widespread protests and riots in the streets, and is still unanimously seen as a mistake; her desire to see off the reunification of Germany, as she feared European federalism, was also unpopular and her stance on Europe would ultimately lead to her downfall. The culture of consumerism and unregulated capitalism that she ushered in can also be seen as a few of the many reasons which have lead to today’s recession and economic failings.
Therefore, in conclusion we must look at her overriding achievement: despite remaining a controversial and divisive figure today, she did make this country great again. Her ideology and leadership oversaw the transformation of a declining and failed state to the global power that we are today. Several of her key ideas have now become accepted in modern politics, similar to the welfare reforms of the 1940’s; and even when New Labour won a landslide victory in 1997, they built on the legacy that Thatcher had left behind, and she is still having that impact on us today. She was an undefeated PM in electoral terms, but she was also a national and cultural figurehead, which is why she is arguably seen as the greatest peacetime Prime Minister of all time. Many will forget Major, Brown and Cameron, but Margaret Thatcher will never be forgotten.
The easy way to answer the title question is to compare Britain now to when the Iron Lady took office in 1979, and to decide in which year you would like to live. And that is now for you to decide.
Contributed by Benjamin Vicary