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Thatcher: The Most Divisive British Leader of All Time

10/04/2013 10:32 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

The death of Margaret Thatcher has been quite unlike that of any public figure in living memory. The debate about financing her funeral had started long ago so it was only to be expected that there was going to be some diverse and extreme views when she passed away, but her death has led many to challenge the usually-accepted taboo that you don't speak ill of anyone until they are long gone and settled into the ground.

I can just about remember the 1979 general election and Margaret Thatcher's triumph over James Callaghan's Labour - a government that had lurched from crisis to crisis in the late seventies, most vividly remembered by the unburied dead during the Winter of Discontent.

But my real memory of Thatcher's time comes from the school playground. When I was a teenager - with Reagan and Thatcher leading the free world - the Soviet Union was openly considered to be an evil empire. This actually affected playground conversation, with kids often considering how best to hide from nuclear fallout - would a big oak tree suffice?

Thatcher still manages to divide opinion in a way that no other British leader has achieved. Even Tony Blair's false wars don't create the same kind of hatred.

And most of the people I know do hate her. The Irish community in the UK - of which I am one - were singing and dancing in west London last night. The favoured song being 'tramp the dirt down' by Elvis Costello, in which he sings of hoping to live long enough to "stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

The Irish have good reason to hate Thatcher. Her belligerence and single-mindedness meant that she would rather watch young men starve to death than negotiate or remove the British troops from Northern Ireland. This character trait came to the fore during the Falklands war. Now hailed as a great military and political victory, almost no other leader would have attempted such an audacious operation in the South Atlantic, but she rarely listened to advice and - of course - this was ultimately her political downfall.

But this confidence and unshakeable decisiveness was a character trait that her supporters loved. In an era before focus groups and a need to pretend that you love the Arctic Monkeys or watch the X-Factor, politicians could lead with conviction.

And Thatcher did lead with conviction. She did modernise the unions where others were beholden to them - Callaghan was desperate to reduce inflation by controlling wages, yet he had lost control. Even if you support the right of workers to organise, would anyone today argue that secondary action or the closed shop really helps workers to negotiate with employers? Some of the Thatcher reforms were clearly necessary.

Thatcher led the world in slimming the public sector. It was no longer a requirement to apply to the government for a phone line or an electricity connection in dozens of nations who directly followed what her privatisation programme achieved in the UK. If you don't believe me, ask someone who was trying to pay their electricity bill or arranging a telephone extension line back in the 1970s.

Some critics now argue that the trains or gas or electricity used to be better when run by the state. Talk about a rose-tinted view of the past. Can you even imagine asking the government for permission to buy a new sim card? We now take for granted many of the freedoms the Thatcher era introduced. Her endless phone calls to President Reagan were a constant reminder to the US that the free nations of the west had to destroy the Soviet empire without a war - and that goal was achieved.

But I also fear that Thatcher's attitude has been cast in stone, changing British society in too many negative ways. Major and Blair simply continued along the same path of chasing the chimera of endless economic growth and houses that only ever increased in value. This meant a decline in manufacturing, because services - such as banking - were more valuable and grew faster.

The good times couldn't last forever - the crash of 2007 proved that. Banking won't save the UK now and outside of London is anyone investing in property? Britain needs a more mixed economy and a culture of respect for society in general, but all this has been lost since the 1980s. The UK now fears foreigners, has lost entire industries, and yet there remains a paranoia over the need to remain relevant internationally.

Thatcher genuinely helped the UK to punch above its weight internationally, but now British people have to accept that they live on a small island facing a long period of economic decline. The GDP of Brazil surpassed the UK a year ago - though currency fluctuation has reversed this for now - the long term trend is obvious. Soon, the economies of India, Mexico, and Indonesia will be bigger than that of the UK.

Can you just imagine explaining to Baroness Thatcher that a country in Latin America has a bigger and more vibrant economy than that of the UK?

The British economic model focused on endless growth collapsed six years ago. The period of economic decline British people are facing at present is the real legacy of Margaret Thatcher. A formidable, but divisive, leader who deserves to be remembered, but there is as much to hate as there is to love about what she achieved during her time in office.