Margaret Thatcher has died at the age of 87, leaving behind her one of the most divisive legacies in British political history. Politicians throughout the UK, even outside Thatcher’s own Conservative Party, have been quick to pay tribute to her political skill, if not her actual policies. David Cameron has gone so far to say that Thatcher “saved our country”.
As is often the case when a famous figure dies, the initial reaction, particularly amongst the establishment, is positive. It does, after all, appear rather callous and inconsiderate to criticise someone on the moment of their passing. However, the “popular” reaction is often more enlightening. Here, people’s memories of Thatcher within the UK are highly conflicting, particularly with regards to the economy and class.
Margaret Thatcher oversaw a complete upheaval of the British economy during her tenure at 10, Downing Street (1979-1990). Privatising state-owned industries, she opened up the economy to greater competition, making it more flexible in a increasingly globalised world. Simultaneously, she severely curtailed the powers of the trade unions, which opposed her acts of privatisation and the enforced closures of industrial and manufacturing bases. Her iron will was best displayed in facing down Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) during the strike of 1984-5.
Thatcher’s policies unarguably led to job losses amongst the working class, particularly as mines closed and industry was outsourced abroad due to cheaper labour costs. Yet the economy was in need of a transformation. To engage with an increasingly competitive global economy, and with the financial miseries of the 1970s still fresh in the memory, her neoconservative approach was a necessity. Without her reforms, Britain would not have so rapidly advanced its technological skills base and would not be one of the world’s leading financial centres. Unfortunately, this resulted in a widening wealth gap between rich and poor that, partly thanks to Thatcher’s uncompromising elitism, became associated with class. The massive sale of council houses to private ownership furthered the impression that Thatcher was unconcerned with the common man.
That said, her handling of the Falklands War in 1982 had received almost unanimous support across the country and helped prevent a complete alienation between the classes. Refusing to bow to aggression from a brutal Argentine regime, Thatcher’s swift and ruthless execution of the war brought a renewed patriotic fervour and unity to Britain, if only temporarily.
The fact that Thatcher won re-election twice testifies to a persisting popularity amongst large segments of the population. She may never have been loved but there was perhaps a grudging acceptance from some quarters that a leader of her conviction and strength was necessary to revitalise Britain and make it relevant in a modern world. Whilst many will refuse to admit it, her reign at the top was a platform from which New Labour and Tony Blair could bring strong economic growth back to the UK. It is the reason why Britain, despite an obvious downturn, remains a global economic powerhouse in the twenty-first century.
Rarely loved, revered by some, grudgingly admired by others, and intensely hated by many more, Margaret Thatcher will raise passions in almost every person that experienced her rule as Britain’s Prime Minister. Only someone of immense character and resolve could precipitate such a reaction.