The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death has provoked the predictable ocean of commentary so I may as well express my own view of her.
My own view of Thatcher, which was formed whilst she was Prime Minister and which has never changed, is that she was in person a much overrated figure. Her opinions remained those of the 1940s (the decade she reached adulthood) and she never transcended or evolved beyond them. Thus she was always strongly antagonistic to Labour and the unions, reflecting the intense Conservative middle class resentment of Labour’s victory in 1945. She was basically hostile to the National Health Service, not from any well developed ideological reasons but because Labour created it. It began to be seriously neglected whilst she was Prime Minister and has never fully recovered.
Thatcher remained strongly attached to Friedrich Hayek, who she would have known as a prominent right wing anti Labour publicist in the 1940s, and who was an otherwise largely forgotten figure until shortly before she became Conservative leader. However in my opinion she never had the fundamentalist free market views on economic questions that people attribute to her. Her government’s economic policies were a mixture of improvisations (for example the privatisations that got underway in the mid 1980s) or made up by others (for example the disastrous monetarist experiment of the early 1980s, whose real author seems to have been Keith Joseph). As she showed by her refusal to privatise the Post Office or to abolish tax relief on mortgage interest, Thatcher at no time let her notional commitment to free market economic ideas threaten the interests of her middle class supporters.
She was a good politician. She possessed in abundance the personal charm that is indispensable for a successful career in politics, though it was used to manipulate those around her rather than being projected to the nation as a whole. Above all though she was extremely careful to look after the interests of her core middle class constituency whose prejudices she shared and articulated. Only towards the end as she began to lose her touch did she start to infringe on its economic interests, for example by the introduction of the poll tax, in a way that brought her crashing down. However it is important to say that the secret of Thatcher’s political success was the failure of her opponents rather than her actions. Though never popular she had the extreme good fortune to be Conservative Prime Minister at a time when the Labour Party was going through an acrimonious split, which made it unelectable. That more than anything else accounts for her election wins in 1983 and 1987.
Thatcher’s opinions on international questions were also shaped by her experiences of the 1940s. Thus she despised the French who capitulated to the Germans, liked the Greeks who stood up to them, supported the Israelis, who represented the nation the Germans persecuted (she also had an unusually large number of Jews in her Cabinet), was in love with the US, which came to Britain’s rescue and despite her occasional anti Communist rhodomontades actually liked the Russians rather a lot (Russia was the first country she visited as Prime Minister when she annoyed the Americans by stopping off at Moscow airport to meet the Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin on her way to a G7 summit). By contrast her hostility to Germany (the wartime enemy) never faded. Her sympathy for the apartheid regime in South Africa, which is today notorious, was also a function of opinions shaped by the 1940s. Though she was no racist the white South Africans were always for Thatcher allies who fought alongside Britain in the Second World War and who could not therefore be abandoned.
She was no intellectual despite what people say. Both her speeches and her memoirs (the latter of course heavily ghost written) are banal. Other than the odd sound bite (many of which originated with her speechwriters and which are anyway often wrongly remembered) no one today reads a Thatcher speech. I remember how disappointed I was when I did. Thatcherism as an intellectual system, to the extent that it existed at all, was in my opinion more the creation of people like Nigel Lawson and John Redwood and of some of the others who worked for her than it was her own.
She was a remote figure and I doubt that she knew much of what was going on or would have liked it much if she did. I doubt for example that she would have approved of the flamboyant and amoral lifestyles or practices of some of her supporters in the City of London, which were so much at variance with the austere conduct of her father that she was brought up with.
She was fortunate (if that is the right word) in being the object of a very un British personality cult orchestrated by her media advisers and Rupert Murdoch that created an image of her that she struggled to live up to. Thus she worked excessively long hours, got by with far too little sleep and (as became known only much later) drank altogether too much. I suspect that alcohol fuelled some of her more emotional performances in the House of Commons, which remain in the memory. The struggle to sustain her image also made her very nervous and insecure. This surely is the main reason why she rarely travelled outside Westminster. It was also what was surely behind her fraught relations with some of her ministers, which led to constant plotting against them on her part and by her supporters, in a way that was big news and which seemed very shocking at the time but which is largely forgotten today.
It is largely however through the confected image of her personality cult that people remember Thatcher today. Paradoxically, this image was reproduced even by her critics, for example by the satirical television programme Spitting Image, in a way that undoubtedly helped her politically.
She was hardworking and was within certain limitations a competent though hardly an outstanding administrator. Though the business of government was never as dysfunctional as it became under Blair, as an administrator she was definitely inferior to her two predecessors, Wilson and Callaghan. Again the record of this is largely forgotten, with the “banana skins”, the bungled introduction of the national schools’ curriculum and various other administrative failures making waves at the time but having vanished now down a memory hole. Similarly, though she dominated parliamentary debates and Prime Minister’s Questions, the same had been equally true before of Wilson and Callaghan in a way that today is also forgotten.
In saying all of this I do not deny the tremendous importance of what happened both in Britain and elsewhere in the 1980s. The point I am trying to make is that it is important to reduce Thatcher herself to her true dimensions. That way the changes that happened in the 1980s can be better understood and her contribution, such as it was, better appreciated.