Margaret Thatcher died this week.
I’m writing this on Monday, the day she died, and I have condolences for her friends, supporters and family.
Ultimately, a frail, rather vulnerable 87 year-old woman has died, and at no point should that ever be a cause of celebration or jubilation – good heavens, what sort of society have we allowed ourselves to be if that is the first reaction?
Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the modern age. Those two facts alone would mean that she would be long-remembered and discussed, but of course she was of much greater social, political and economic significance than that.
I was reflecting today how, through sheer force of will, she was able to become a female MP, and one born in a lower middle class family, grow up into the chauvinism and sexism of the 1950s and then become the leader of a Conservative Party which was led (and now is again) by a group of public school men who had all known each other since kindergarten.
How she was able to break through that and then have to deal with it on a daily basis are remarkable achievements.
I admire people who have a strong sense of public service, and there is no doubt she had that. What she did with the Falkland Islands, in the face of official advice to let the Argentinians take over sovereignty of the Islands, was impressive and helped to define her image.
She showed considerable personal bravery when an attempt was made on her life by the IRA in 1984 at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, addressing the Conference the day after the bombing to show – rightly – that terrorism could never succeed against a democratically-elected government.
Her close working relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union – she famously said that Gorbachev was a man with whom she could do business – played a not insignificant role in helping to end the Cold War.
Yet, Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure whose social and economic policies, I passionately believe, were deeply detrimental to the country and to this region in particular.
I was six years’ old when she became Prime Minister in 1979; I was 17 when she was ousted from Downing Street. I grew up and became aware of the world around me in the 1980s in the context of her policies and the impact upon my community.
Probably more than any other single figure, with the possible exception of my grandfather, Margaret Thatcher shaped my political views.
It was my opposition to what she was doing, and a belief that there was – had to be – a better alternative that made me want to get involved in politics.
The manner in which she downgraded the importance of manufacturing as a means by which Britain could earn its way in the world helped to decimate industry in our part of the world. Our area used to be stronger than the national average when it came to economic value – since the deindustrialisation of the 1980s, we have slumped along the bottom.
We are still dealing with the consequences of such acts. The demise of the coalfields of Durham, Yorkshire and beyond cost 250 000 jobs in the mining industry, many former miners never worked again through a decade of high unemployment.
It wasn’t a question of forcing British industry to be more competitive – the strong value of the pound as a result of North Sea Oil revenues meant that it was virtually impossible for British manufacturers to sell their goods in export markets to the rest of the world.
On the subject of North Sea Oil, which largely came on stream during her premiership, the manner in which the huge revenues from the oil was squandered – that’s not too strong a term – to pay for large unemployment benefit queues was shameful. Other countries, like Norway, have used their North Sea Oil revenue to build up multi-billion dollar sovereign wealth funds that are investing in their economies for their children and grandchildren.
The UK has not been able to do that. She laid the foundations for the Major Government’s privatisation of the railways, widely regarded as botched. Indeed, much of the present Government’s dogmatic application of market solutions- in the NHS, Education and Royal Mail, for example, can also be attributed to her legacy.
Lady Thatcher’s Government also placed social considerations well below economic priorities. This meant that ministers in her government said that “unemployment was a price worth paying”.
It saw unemployment of three million and more, with male unemployment in Hartlepool reaching over 25 per cent in the 1980s.
We are still having to deal with that unprecedented economic and social shock and are still trying to deal with the social scars that such policies produced.
Margaret Thatcher is the most significant political figure of my lifetime. She has had – and continues to have – a huge impact upon Hartlepool, Britain and my own life. I am sorry that an old and frail lady has died, but her significance remains. For good or ill, we still live in Thatcher’s Britain.