Margaret Thatcher: Don’t believe the myth.

Some years ago I was on Newstalk to discuss the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s coming to power in 1979. During the course of the discussion, I got into a heated row with a member of the Social Party over the myth that working class people didn’t benefit at all from her time in office. The reason it got heated was because, aside from the creation of the NHS by Clement Attlee (who disgracefully did not get a state funeral, having impacted British life at least as much, if not more, than Mrs T) Mrs Thatcher was responsible for the single most radical socialist act of the post-war years. She let people buy their council homes.

When you say this to people, they roll their eyes. Some on the left (in dwindling numbers, it has to be said) are outraged at the concept of selling council houses, but the reality is this: it was a radical act of wealth transfer from rich (through taxation) to the state (who used those taxes to build the houses) to poor, by selling an under-valued asset which appreciated in value and was now owned by people who had never owned such an asset before. This was wealth redistribution on a scale unheard of.

Of course, she banned those same local authorities from using the proceeds of those sales to build more houses, a short-sighted and (indeed hypocritical) act from a woman who lectured about freeing people from the dead hand of centralised control. Apparently people are free to do what they want, as long as she approves of it. But the policy did give poor people more actual wealth than they’d ever had before.

The greatest myth about her, however, is the “freedom” label that right-wingers attach to her. Economically, she did liberalise a lot of services, and did improve choice. But politically, while she was unquestionably a democrat, she was not big on devolving power away from the centre, holding onto it with all the zeal of a European Commissioner. When the people of London kept electing Labour Greater London Councils, she abolished them (the GLC, not the people). She refused to let the people of Scotland decide their own internal affairs, and she defended an electoral system which imposed a minority rule on the majority.  

On the Falklands, she was right. The people of the Falklands should decide their own future, not some fascist dictator. On South Africa, she was just plain wrong.

The right, especially in the US, who will now attempt to create a cartoon version of her to fit whatever the agenda of the day is, will ignore the awkward stuff. She didn’t privatise the NHS, did believe in human activity causing climate change, didn’t introduce the death penalty, made abortion MORE available, and through the expansion of Qualified Majority Voting took a major leap towards a united Europe. And she took Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, something eurosceptics quietly airbrush out.

But all that is mere detail. The reason Margaret Thatcher was a success was because she could speak to the gut. Unlike any Tory leader before, save maybe Stanley Baldwin (Churchill’s status was unique. His finest hour was not a Tory one), she could speak to the values of ordinary working Brits in a way that many of her successors, and certainly not the modern political leadership, can. Cameron and Milliband, with their I-eat-pasties-too pandering look just plain odd beside her, and that’s possibly her greatest contribution: that a leader can be blunt about what they stand for, and you can like it or lump it.

After all, it’s hard to imagine her worrying about whether people thought she ate pasties or not. 

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