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Did Thatcher Destroy People's Faith in Politics?

16/04/2013 11:24 BST | Updated 15/06/2013 10:12 BST

In the tsunami of commentary following Margaret Thatcher's death, several paradoxes about her legacy have been widely noted: she was surprisingly cautious politically, despite her reputation for radicalism; for feminists, she was both an icon and a figure of hate; and despite her passion for shrinking the state, she didn't really.

Here's another puzzle: what was Thatcher's effect on people's faith in politics? Was she a saviour, confronting the failures of the postwar consensus and banishing fears that Britain had become ungovernable? Or was she so committed to neutering government and empowering the markets that she left people feeling politicians were pointless?

Like all real paradoxes, both of these arguments hold water. There can be little doubt that Thatcher's confrontational and charismatic style strengthened the status of politics. Her approach made it look as if she was 'getting things done', even when she wasn't. This appealed to a large section of the population, and even the many millions who detested her were at least being presented with an image of a politician achieving things. During Thatcher's reign, few would have uttered the now-commonplace anti-political statement: "They're all the same as each other, so why should I vote for anyone". She gave people a reason to vote, one way or the other.

But she also pushed an agenda that emasculated government and entrenched people's distrust of politicians. By selling public utilities, hiving off various governmental responsibilities to 'independent' experts and waging war on local government, Thatcher severely limited the scope for politicians to do things. One influential analysis goes further, claiming that Thatcherite neoliberalism - with its assumption that all individuals are seeking to maximise their own self-interest - is the direct cause of modern political disengagement. We have all learnt to distrust not just each other, but crucially our elected representatives. If you're seeking a reason for falling voter turnout and rising disgust at mainstream politics, Lady T certainly has a case to answer.

Thatcher's policy agenda encouraged people to see politics as the preserve of a self-interested elite presiding over an ever-diminishing field of authority. It is very hard to dislodge this notion and to encourage a more positive view of government and politics. But the other side of Thatcher's story ought to give hope. All it takes is for a skilful politician driven by conviction to pursue a distinctive policy agenda (re-nationalisation, anyone?), and anything could happen.