Last night I made a rare visit (these days) to the cinema. What drew me was the opening night of the Iron Lady. Everyone of my generation has an opinion of Margaret Thatcher, you either like her or loathe her. I’ve always been in the latter camp and the film didn’t change my view.
I know that some people who agree with me that Thatcher was a divisive and damaging Prime Minister are boycotting the film. My advice to them is swallow your pride and go and see it. You’ll be rewarded by a superb performance by Meryl Streep and will have your memory stirred about the seminal events of the 1980s. If you’re confident about your political convictions then they shouldn’t be threatened by a short film.
The 1979 general election was the first that I watched with interest. I was 12 and in my first year at Mountain Ash Comprehensive School. The Cynon Valley was not the sort of place where people owned up to voting Tory. But on the back of crippling strikes, inflation and high taxation even on the small council estate where we lived some people talked about the need for change. One house bravely displayed a Tory poster. To counter this I asked the local Labour Party for a poster and advertised the re-election of Ioan Evans MP from my bedroom window. It was my first party political act.
I got up early to watch the election results coverage before going to school. Thatcher was to be Prime Minister all the way through secondary school, my time at Bristol University and my first couple of years in work. It was my arrival at Bristol in the autumn of 1985 that first exposed me to the complete polarisation of views on Mrs T. I had come from a community that had just been deeply scarred by the miners strike. I was now a fully fledged political activist, though in the SDP. At university I was befriending people from the home counties who had been to famous schools. And many of them worshipped Mrs T. To them she was Mrs Thatcher or the blessed Margaret. My spitting out of the word Thatcher was considered highly amusing.
Five years later I stood in the lobby of Coopers and Lybrand (PWC today) with the admin staff watching Thatcher’s resignation on the only tv in the building. I went back upstairs and practically skipped around the tax and audit departments, enjoying breaking the news to my colleagues. Most of them were not pleased. But to me it was something of a political liberation and certainly the end of an era.
The politician in me admires Thatcher as a successful operator, succeeding despite all the odds that were stacked against her inside the Tory Party. She was a remarkable politician, helped by some luck in her enemies. But I don’t subscribe to the view that she is a remarkable human being. The truly great Prime Ministers such as Gladstone, Lloyd George and Churchill were remarkable in all senses. Thatcher does not seem to have any cultural hinterland and there is little evidence of empathy for the feelings of others, in particular the victims of her policies.
Two decades on her political legacy is not settled history. But for me her period in power did more harm than good. I supported giving council tenants the right to own their homes, the taming of the union leaders and think she was right in her view that people should work hard to get on and not always look to the state for support. But her policies crippled large sections of British industry and impoverished whole communities. She sowed the seeds of Eurosceptic madness in the Tory Party.
A great leader would have united the country at a time of economic and social change. But Thatcher was a divider not a unity figure. She brought discord not harmony. She certainly changed Britain. In my opinion, it was not for the better.