Talk to anyone who was living in Britain in the late 1970s and they will tell you this: our country was on the rocks, our European cousins across the channel sniggered we were the “sick man of Europe”, the dead were left unburied during the Winter of Discontent, the trade union barons ran the country enjoying beer and sandwiches in Number 10.
Then came the election of the first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1979 and the rot was stopped.
I was born in 1979 and although I do not remember that year I have discussed at length with my father what the UK was like back then, when he was building his career and starting a family, and, in his words, it was “a different world”. By the time Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990, I was starting secondary school and I remember vividly a left-wing teacher bursting into our classroom and gleefully telling his colleague: “She has resigned!”
But by the time she was ousted from office, she had done what she set out to do. Mrs Thatcher took Britain from being a basket case where the previous Labour Government had been forced to call in the IMF into the fourth largest economy on Earth by the time she left Downing Street after eleven years in 1990. Thatcher transformed Britain and no other peacetime prime minister has ever come close to securing such a lasting legacy.
This very day, we only need to look around, and we can see her legacy. Privatisation of our public utility companies brought wealth through shareholdings to millions of people who had never had a stake in a company. I work for one such company – BT – and it is a far better run company for being publicly owned than it ever was as a State-run organisation. Back in the 1970s, owning a car and going abroad on holiday were still a luxury – today, many families have multiple cars and many more go abroad on holiday at least once a year! How do you think this happened? It didn’t magically occur. It was created by the economic reforms Margaret Thatcher, along with her trusted advisors like Keith Joseph and Willie Whitelaw, put in place. Mrs Thatcher unleashed an entrepreneurial revolution, removing regulation to help small businesses start up and thrive. The reforms in the City of London, notably the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986, made London’s financial services industry a rival to Wall Street and overnight brought down barriers to employment in the sector: out went the old-boys’ network, in came the ‘barrow boys’.
Millions and millions of baby boomers today are living high on the hog because of Margaret Thatcher. I wish I was part of my parent’s generation rather than starting my career in the early noughties whilst Labour were taking a wrecking ball to the British economy once again.
Back in the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher put the power back in the hands of the people and out of the hands of the elite trade union barons who until Maggie came along were quaffing beer and munching on sandwiches with THEIR Labour prime minister in Downing Street. Thatcher crushed the unions who had held an economic gun to the head of Britain for too long and because of parliamentary legislation she passed they will never be able to threaten our country’s economy again.
Margaret Thatcher was not just a political heavyweight domestically but also internationally. When a military junta in Argentina invaded a small British sovereign territory, called the Falkland Islands, 8000 miles away from the UK, which most of the British population had never heard of, Thatcher did not flinch. Instead she ordered the fleet to sail for Port Stanley and, when there was not a large enough troop carrier available to the Ministry of Defence, she commandeered a cruise liner to ferry our troops to the South Atlantic.
We now know Ronald Reagan, through the release of the Thatcher files under the Thirty-Year Rule, did not support her campaign to retake the Falkland Islands and he encouraged her to not “humiliate” the Argentines and to pull back. She refused and two weeks later the Union Jack was flying once again over the Governor’s House in Port Stanley.
Then there was the Soviet Union. Red Star, a USSR propaganda sheet, dubbed her (even before she became Prime Minister) the Iron Lady for her strong will. She detested Socialism and Communism in all their forms. Thatcher saw millions of fellow Europeans trapped behind the Iron Curtain in countries like Hungary, Romania and Poland under oppressive regimes with their economies shattered. Together with Ronald Reagan, who adored her steadfast leadership style, they defeated Communism in Europe and ended the Cold War, allowing tens of millions of people to travel abroad and unleashing their talents into the global economy.
In Hungary, high schools have a dedicated page in their history course books to only one UK prime minister: Margaret Thatcher.
Unlike the British Conservative Party leadership of today, Margaret Thatcher did understand the aspiring class. She was the daughter of a green grocer who worked her way up and, granted, through the love of her husband Denis, his wealth allowed her to leave her trades of Chemistry and the Law to become Conservative Party Leader and then prime minister in 1979. But she never forgot where she came from and instinctively understood people who were thriving and trying to get on. Maggie always knew the price of a pint of milk!
Margaret Thatcher was a major national and international figure, whatever your politics. She ranks alongside Wellington, Palmerston, Gladstone and Churchill. Unlike them she ordered before her death that she did not want her body to lie in State and therefore she will not have a State Funeral but will be afforded a Ceremonial Funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral with full military honours. It will be the same form of funeral as the Queen Mother in 2002. This is entirely fitting for a woman who was one of the greatest world leaders of the Twentieth Century.
As the current Prime Minister David Cameron said on this sad day, Margaret Thatcher “saved” our country. Frankly, she put the Great back in to Great Britain.
May this great lady rest in peace.