The Blog

Margaret Thatcher: Our Britannia, Our Chief of Men

Margaret Thatcher is despised by many left-leaning Britons. However, how many of our former prime ministers are loved? We British have a need to take down uppity people. Margaret Thatcher, however, was something special.

Margaret Thatcher is despised by many left-leaning Britons. However, how many of our former prime ministers are loved? We British have a need to take down uppity people. Margaret Thatcher, however, was something special. "The eyes of Calligula, the mouth of Marilyn Monroe," said Francois Mitterand of her. Her presence across the eighties was infuriating to some, intoxicating to others. Mention the word Thatcher in an article, essay or blog and the howling and hysteria begins.

She began a social revolution - in more ways than one. She was fresh blood in a Conservative party that was stuffed with upper class grandees. A Lincolnshire grocer's daughter led this country for 13 years. During her initial stint as party leader, some fellow Tory MPs openly referred to her as 'Hilda' - her middle name - to mock her lower-middle class background.

Because Margaret Thatcher was the first Western woman prime minister, the sheer visual example of a woman leading a nation helped us psychologically break other moulds. Since Thatcher's example, the Tory Chair has been occupied by a Muslim woman and the British Conservative party at one point had at least 13 out gay MPs (America's entire Congress has only a couple of openly gay representatives).

And she was so right about the Euro, wasn't she? "Are we going to have one single currency over which we can have no control over, which we cannot determine our own interest rate [over] or anything?" she asked.

Yes, Thatcher made errors. Perhaps she was too strident. She did not encourage or promote women MPs. She was socially too conservative - a disaster in the fight for gay equality. And Section 28 was one example of that. But overall, she made Britain better, more prosperous. Average incomes rose 25% during her time as Prime Minister. More than that, she made Britain strong again. Strong as a nation. It is easy to tax people so that we can have more welfare, more coal miners, more state spending. But Britain doesn't have an empire to tax any more. And in the end, there is only so much one can tax the rich, before even that runs out. The only way to build a strong country is to free people to set up businesses, employ people, grow the economy. She had the intelligence to understand this - and the courage to say so.

She was an undeserved blessing to Britain, a kick in the pants. To say, "Sorry, the State just can't keep spending," is a very difficult message to deliver. A message recent generations of Western leaders haven't been able to deliver. State overspending, and the bailing out of failing banks has brought the West to its knees in the recent crises. She said, "It is not governments which create wealth, but people - provided we have policies that encourage people to do it. We need to get away from the debilitating concept of the all powerful state which takes too much from you, to do too much for you."

Her policies caused understandable pain amongst coal mining families, who slowly, lost everything. Conversely, is it really the state's job to mine coal, run airlines or to prop up manufacturing? Should the state subsidise every dying profession? Before her, the unions went on strike each time new technology or job losses were introduced. Rubbish on the streets, unburied bodies, Britain held to ransom. She broke that union control. As Martin Amis once said, she was the dry nurse who gave us the medicine we did not want - but knew we needed. She made Britons more self-reliant, more modern, more decisive.

She stood up for her views. She said that her medicine was better in the long run for Britain than the fast running out comfort of socialism. And this is why ordinary people voted for her. Not because she went round giving free TV licences and handouts like Labour always does. But because they knew that the money for all of that came from everyone's own pockets, their own taxes.

There is a reason the iPad and the iPhone was created and designed in the US and built in the East, with the profits returning to shareholders in the West. There is a reason Dyson is conceived and designed in Britain, built in the East, with profits returning to the West. This is because the societies with free-markets, where the state doesn't decide what you say, what you do, what you create, are societies of great creativity.

Amidst all the dull talk of the booming "tiger economies" of the East (something we have heard for forty years now) and the pressure of more regulation from the EU, Britain is still one of the world's richest nations. This is because, unlike many Eastern countries, a creative businessman here doesn't need to wade through months, sometimes years of paperwork. We have less bureaucrats and so less corruption is encountered. Unlike the East where the state decides who can trade (the Indian "licence raj" was a legendary example of how politicans and their cronies ran entire industries, preventing the creatives from rising up). Thatcher was responsible for dismantling much of the bureaucracy nightmare.

Even the critics of the right accept now that, "we're healthier, wealthier, more comfortable, and longer living than ever before... our standard of life is on average higher than emperors of the past." This is the ethical case for free markets. Charles Murray the libertarian said, "From the dawn of history until the eighteenth century, every society in the world was impoverished, with only the thinnest film of wealth on the top. Then came capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere that capitalism took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn't take hold, people remained impoverished. Everywhere that capitalism has been rejected since then, poverty has increased."

Dominic Lawson said, "Socialism destroys moral responsibility and those who make fortunes in competitive markets (through lower prices or better goods) are serving the public good more than any trade union leader." Thatcher understood that.

Democracy is the West's noblest, highest virtue. Thatcher spoke out for democracy, economic freedom and free markets everywhere and she pushed for Eastern Europe, then under vicious communism and totalitarianism, to be free people. The whole of Europe (not just Western Europe) is now democratic and Thatcher's stridency in condemning communism helped achieve that.

That's not to say that having economic freedom makes people happy. But here too, Thatcher's world has a consolation: "Money if it does not bring you happiness, will at least help you be miserable in comfort," said Helen Gurley Brown.

The people who criticise one of the West's (and capitalism's) greatest recent heroines take the privileges we enjoy in the West for granted. These privileges include 'free' education, and, in large parts of Europe, 'free' healthcare, pensions and other benefits. These critics are economically illiterate. They don't realise that these things don't exist in most countries in the world - most people in this world don't have access to quality, free healthcare from the state because their economies are broken. These Western privileges come from economic growth, taxes, employees and corporations. The lefties who criticise open markets (and the excess, the rise and fall, that goes with markets) seem to think education, healthcare, pensions and benefits are god-given, they just materialise out of sunshine, music and mist. They have foolish delusions that an all-powerful benevolent state is guiding them.

Thatcher's father never went to university. "The path to power - there wasn't a path there," she said. "There was no path there," she repeated. "You made it yourself."

"In Britain, we prefer to imagine that the people who [make it to] the top are stupid, and ideally, hatefully so," said Ben Machell in a different context. We aren't as socially mobile in Britain as other countries are - sadly it's too much of who we know, not what we know that determines success. So when someone has broken through that terrible trap, broken through that magnificently, and made it to the top, we should cheer.

In her later years as PM, she became grand, almost imperial. "We are now a grandmother," she boomed, using the royal "We," when her beloved son Mark became a father. Over time she moved from a kind of diligent confidence to a glittering confidence, attending the opera in Paris, looking like Elizabeth I, as the Tory boys in London plotted the downfall of their splendid mother. But why shouldn't she have been confident, glittering, imperial? She had overcome class discrimination and centuries of (still existing) crushing sexism to become the first female leader in the Western free world. When Obama overcame centuries of racial discrimination by becoming the first black US President, we cheered at the evidence that human beings could sometimes defeat old prejudices. Why not the same with Thatcher? She deserves to be imperial in our history because like Churchill, she rescued Britain from peril. Britain, despite a lack of vast quantities of oil or natural resources, despite the end of Empire, despite everything, is amongst the worlds top economies. Thatcher freed us up to achieve this.

There are a great many intelligent commentators who criticise Thatcher interestingly. These commentators don't harp on in the usual, borrowed postures, sprouting second-hand ideas - they actually have a point. Hanif Kureishi's sparkling criticism of Thatcher's Britain also contains an acknowledgement of how she changed our country, made it less provincial. In Something To Tell You, his novel about desire, loneliness, sex and middle age, he reflects on Britain today, the Britain Thatcher helped mould. He says, "Now, of course, we live in Thatcher's psyche if not her anus, in the world she made, of competition, consumerism, celebrity and guilt's bastard son, charity: bingeing and debt."

The truth is, most of us are no longer interested in going back to the overtaxed, nationalised, foreign exchange-controlled Britain of the 70s, the Britain Thatcher liberated. As we live in our Britain of plenty now, with greater choice, the price we pay for it are the children of celebrity and consumerism: with the X-Factor and Tesco being the horrendous elder siblings. I think it's a fair price to pay. Before Thatcher, Britain felt like a big grey country, everyone discussing decline. The reason we could afford taxpayer funded regeneration of cities, Tate Modern, museums and all the other sparkling, wonderful public spaces of culture sprouting all over the country (including, later, the dazzling Olympics), all this flow of delicious warm milk flowing from the teat of the state, washing down all over us - all this was only because Thatcher cut the debt in the eighties, and cut it savagely, so that the State was not weighed down with debt and dizzying rates of interest in the nineties and early noughties.

It is a tribute to Margaret Thatcher that she is not loved for being nice to everyone. Her legacy is still fought over. She is bitterly hated by many. As Alan Clark said in response to a question about why she wasn't liked: "Like? Like? She's not there to be liked, you idiot! She just is!"

Often, I think, she is most hated by people who hate themselves - because these people have led pacifying, plastic, approximated lives. Lives with compromise. Lives without risk. People who haven't even tried to identify or achieve their dreams. I'm not saying everyone who disagreed with Thatcher hasn't achieved their dreams. I'm talking here about some people who have been wasting their lives hating her, waiting for her death. "One's life must matter, Dennis" says Meryl Streep, playing Thatcher in The Iron Lady, the glorious depiction of her large and significant life - and her King Lear type fall.

Thatcher is also loved by many because she stood for something - and she acted on it. Irrespective of whether it was fashionable or not. This is the definition of being alive. Of courage. Of passion. The opposite of dullness. A recent YouGov opinion poll showed that we consider her our best post-war prime minister. The silent majority feels differently about her. She remains a powerful consolation for those who believe in aspiration, self-reliance and hard work. Margaret Thatcher was our Britannia. She was the revolutionary Cromwell we needed for our times. Margaret Thatcher was, as Dame Antonia Fraser so famously said of Cromwell, Our Chief of Men.