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What an Act - The Pretend World of Margaret Thatcher

17/04/2013 17:50 BST | Updated 17/06/2013 10:12 BST

The tributes to Margaret Thatcher have her endlessly depicted her as a conviction politician - but history will find the reality less consistent, more complex. Those who bother to drill down into the myth soon realise that she was as mutable and movable as any other politician, too often an empty vessel waiting to be told what to do and think, and always prepared to pretend the opposite of what she believed if it would get her to where she needed to go.

Perhaps it was her bullying manner that hypnotised people into thinking she believed what she said. The list of her volte-faces is endless. She famously scrapped school milk when she became education secretary in 1970 and went out on the road to defend the cut. Behind closed doors, we now know, she was violently opposed to the policy. She was the champion of the grammar schools in Opposition, but as education secretary she closed more of them than any socialist had thought possible. (Of the 3,612 applications from local education authorities to abandon selection at 11 and go comprehensive, she turned down only 326.)

As leader of the opposition she embraced causes she later abhorred. She cuddled up to the unions in her first year, refusing to condemn the militant elements involved in the Grunswick dispute and even proclaiming that, despite all the industrial unrest of the 1970s, her version of Conservativism "believes in strong trade unions". (Indeed, the assertion that the Tories were hostile to unions was "one of the most absurd myths of our national and political life".) She also attacked global capitalism as a destructive force. "Britain is not a place", she said, "merely for large corporations". What did she believe, this pro-Union, anti-globalist? Who knew?

The duplicitous sloganising, often hiding its diametric opposite, really took off when she got into Downing Street. Her acolytes portrayed her as staunch, principled and unflinching, the warrior queen, whether it was over the Falkland's war, Europe or the miner's strike. But the archives now tell us a different story. She was the first to say that the government must pay up when the miners made their wage demands in 1981. She settled the bill without a whimper. Her anti-European rhetoric was often specious dissembling. No other British politician before or since has surrendered more sovereignty to Brussels. It was she who signed the Single European Act in 1986, which removed the national veto in scores of policy areas. In 1981 she argued against a u-turn in austerity - but as a cabinet minister under Edward Heath a few years earlier she had argued in favour of it. She spent almost a decade praising her "great friend", Ronald Reagan, the US President, with whom she liked it to be known that she enjoyed a special relationship. We now know that in private she thought Reagan to be a ludicrous figure, and that, according to the indiscreet Alan Clarke, she could barely believe that such a stupid man had become leader of the free world.

When the Falkland Islands were invaded she said that nothing short of an unconditional withdrawal of Argentine troops would do - but behind closed doors she was seeking a negotiated treaty that would give the Argentinians a permanent presence on the islands they had stolen. If their troops left the Falklands, she told them, in a paper marked Top Secret, the country would be rewarded with "representation on the interim commission and on the local councils". The aggressors could also have from her "a commitment to negotiations to decide the definitive status of the islands by the end of the year".

Then there was her self-made image as the great defender of democracy. She was the woman who had helped bring down the Berlin Wall. In truth she helped dictators wage war against democrats. Her international friends included criminals and mass murderers. She famously tried to put the evil Pol Pot back into power - and sent the SAS to train his troops - after Pot's Khmer Rouge had murdered millions in the killing fields of Cambodia. This was the moral equivalent of trying to reinstall the Nazis in 1948. She cozied up to General Augusto Pinochet, the monstrous dictator of Chile. She sold armaments to Saddam Hussein, to King Hussein of Jordan and to the murderous Suharto of Indonesia.

One by one the porticos have fallen away. But none more so than the great revolution in financial services, where real commodities - iron, coal, cars, steel - were abandoned in favour of toxic mortgages, bogus assets, forged balance sheets. It was Thatcherism to a tee - casino capitalism played by cokeheads and crooks.

A success, she was. Immutably principled, she wasn't.