The Prime Minister’s claim on radio recently that we are all Thatcherites now is in one sense true, though of course unlikely to go down well with his opponents. I think what he meant was that over 13 years of Labour governments with large majorities they accepted the Thatcher settlement on ballots before strikes, on lower Income Tax rates, and private ownership of the leading energy, transport and industrial utilities. The country did not return to nationalised steel,elecriticity, gas and phones. The state owned banks were not properly nationalised.Top Income Tax stayed at 40% for almost the whole time, and standard rate income tax continued downwards as under the Conservatives.
Many have now written that yesterday marked the passing of an era. I do not see it that way. Margaret Thatcher’s hold and direction of power effectively ended the day her colleagues forced her into the Exchange Rate Mechansim against her better instincts and the advice of her (all too few)friends in government.I felt that her era ended on that day. Sometime later her Conservative opponents got her out of office, confirming the end of her era. In other words, the Thatcher era has been over for around a quarter of a century. We are well into the legacy. Indeed, the last government lived off the achievement of the Conservative years in curbing debts and deficits, and getting inflation down. We have the luxury to keep the best bits – wider ownership, the ending of the Cold War, the lower tax rates – whilst shedding the bad bits like the ERM and the unsuccesful bits like the Poll Tax.
Today it is a common pursuit for commentators and some in politics to ask What would Margaret do now, faced with today’s problems. All the time she was alive I thought this was a cruel question,not one I ever wished to attempt to answer. It was cruel because in her later years she was not in command of all the facts and the arguments in the way she was in her prime. She did not wish to answer that question most of the time for good political reasons, and was not in an informed position to do so. Anyone seeking to suggest her answer ran the risk of presuming too much. Putting words into the mouth of someone who could often not correct a false interpretation or answer back was I thought a most uncharitable thing to do.
Now she has died the twin constraints of good taste and the danger of the lady contradicting the speculator have been removed. I would nonetheless urge people to refrain from doing so. A few of her genuine political friends wish to be the custodians of the flame, distilling the essence of pure Thatcherism into an ever more exclusing brand. That is to misunderstand the lady at her best, where she recruited many non believers as well as believers to her colours, and showed great flexibility in how to use her power. Some of her political enemies will wish to ascribe to the worst features of modern policy as they see them the brand of Thatcherism, as a kind of evil spirit as they see it which they wish to warn us about years after the end of the era. That too is far from helpful, and may rebound against them as the public wearies of the continued attacks on a dead Prime Minister who cannot answer back.
Margaret Thatcher’s thought and actions changed substantially in many important areas over time. They can no longer change. Anyone who suggests he knows her mind on today’s problems has to make it up.
I am a realist. I understand others will continue to argue over her period in office, and some will seek to enlist her for their cause. In a later post I will examine what we do know of her views on current politics, from the words she said and wrote before she died.