I’m not sure you can appreciate the magnitude of Margaret Thatcher’s achievement without some knowledge of the calamity that immediately preceded it. Most British people can no longer remember the Seventies. I am just fractionally above the national median age – born September 1971 – and my recollections are hazy. What I do recall, though, was the sense of despair. Again and again, I would hear adults casually say “ Britain is finished”. Having spent my early years in Peru , where Britain was still looked up to as a serious country, I was shocked.
In fact, such sentiments were understandable. These were the years of the three-day week, of prices and incomes policies, of double-digit inflation, of constant strikes, of power cuts. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the United Kingdom had been outperformed by every European economy. “ Britain is a tragedy – it has sunk to borrowing, begging, stealing until North Sea oil comes in,” said Henry Kissinger. The Wall Street Journal was blunter: “Goodbye, Great Britain : it was nice knowing you”.
Margaret Thatcher, almost alone, refused to accept the inevitability of decline. She was determined to turn the country around, and she succeeded. Inflation fell, strikes stopped, the latent enterprise of a free people was awakened. Having lagged behind for a generation, we outgrew every European country in the 1980s except Spain (which was bouncing back from an even lower place). As revenues flowed in, taxes were cut and debt was repaid, while public spending – contrary to almost universal belief – rose.
In the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher showed the world that a great country doesn’t retreat forever. And, by ending the wretched policy of one-sided détente that had allowed the Soviets to march into Europe, Korea and Afghanistan, she set in train the events that would free hundreds of millions of people from what, in crude mathematical terms, must be reckoned the most murderous ideology humanity has known.
Like everyone else, I remember where I was when she resigned. It was the equivalent, for my generation of John F Kennedy being shot – an event which, curiously, also took place on 22 November. After three election victories, the Iron Lady was brought down by a collection of Euro-fanatical MPs – the “November Criminals” as one of my local party chairmen darkly calls them. It’s true that there were several factors in her unpopularity, above all the poll tax. Still, it can’t be repeated too often: the immediate cause of Margaret Thatcher’s toppling was that she opposed Britain ’s membership of the euro. Who called that one right?
On any normal measure, she was a supremely successful politician. I'd go further and call her our most successful prime minister ever. Yet she drove many to a hatred so intense that, even on the day she died, a frail grandmother, the Internet was filled with venomous joy. (Have a look, if you have a strong stomach, at my favourited comments on Twitter, or at the #dingdongthewickedwitchisdead hashtag.)
Where does it come from, this inchoate loathing? Anti-Thatcherites tell you that it’s because she closed down the old industries. (She didn’t, of course: she simply stopped obliging everyone else to support them.) Yet it must surely be obvious by now that nothing would have kept the dockyards and coalmines and steel mills open. A similar process of de-industrialisation has unfolded in every other Western European country, and the only parties that still talk of “reviving our manufacturing base” are Respect, the Scottish Socialists and the BNP.
No, what Lefties (with honourable exceptions) find so hard to forgive is the lady’s very success: the fact that she rescued a country that they had dishonoured and impoverished; that she inherited a Britain that was sclerotic, indebted and declining and left it proud, wealthy and free; that she never lost an election to them. Their rage, in truth, can never be assuaged; for it is the rage of Caliban.
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