By Lord Chris Smith, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Chris Smith is a member of Britain’s House of Lords and a former Secretary of State for Culture and Media in the Tony Blair government. The views expressed are his own.
When Margaret Thatcher famously stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street following her first election victory in 1979, she quoted the great prayer of St Francis, and said “where there is discord let us bring harmony.” Eleven years of discord later, she left office and left a country that was better in some ways but worse in many others. But no one could say that she hadn’t been very clear and determined about what she was doing and why she was doing it.
She believed in some very simple principles, learned at her father’s side in the grocer’s shop in Grantham: a free market, small government, unbridled competition, and the value of individual effort over the common bonds of society. All of this, of course, finds a ready echo these days in parts of the Republican Party in the United States. She believed in the free competitive striving of individuals (whatever the consequences for others); she did not believe in the responsibility of society to support and nurture and make possible the wellbeing of the individuals within it.
She stated and pursued these principles with a remarkable determination. The most outstanding thing about Margaret Thatcher was the strength and clarity of her belief. It was a belief in herself as well as in her values, but she was indeed a “conviction politician,” in contrast with post-Thatcher politics, where leaders have tended to trim and fudge and to be in the business of tweaking and administering rather than fundamentally changing society. The breathtaking scale of her determination, come what may, to make a reality of her principles was remarkable. It is said of some governments and some leaders that they “make the political weather.” Others simply try and cope with whatever the weather brings. Britain has had two prime ministers – and only two – since World War II who have made the weather: Clement Attlee (head of the great Labour government immediately after the War), and Margaret Thatcher. Both have left substantial legacies. Attlee’s was infinitely better, but Mrs Thatcher’s was just as impactful.
It was her determination that led her to do the strong things that made her name on the international stage: the ending of the Iranian Embassy siege in London, very early on in her period in government; the Falklands war, which probably ensured her election victory the following year; the “doing business with Gorbachev” approach to the Soviet Union; the negotiation of Britain’s financial rebate from the European Union; and the close alliance with Ronald Reagan.
But it was her determination, also, that led to a series of domestic policies in Britain that were far more controversial and divisive. She was convinced that the only way to deliver revival to the British economy was to strangle it with high unemployment and high interest rates. A revival of sorts did eventually come – but much too late and only after millions of people had been thrown out of work and we had lost a quarter of all our manufacturing industry (a loss that we are now, especially, suffering for). She was convinced that the trade unions held far too much sway and had to be curbed, so she brought in tough new laws and staged a showdown with the Miners’ Union that led to a year of bitterness, the collapse of the Union (partly through its own strategic mistakes), and the end for many mining communities around the country.
And she was convinced that the great public industries and services that had been owned by the nation would be better off in private hands – so she embarked on a privatization spree, with telecoms and water and gas and electricity and airlines and much more besides.
Some of the privatization was the right thing to do. But some of it wasn’t, as anyone looking at the condition of Britain’s railway network these days will know. And there was one other problem. Her government had two windfalls of income: the proceeds of privatization, and the tax revenue from North Sea oil. What we should have done, as a nation, was to invest much of that income in the rebuilding of our infrastructure, the re-shaping of our industry, and in laying the foundations for wealth creation in the future. We didn’t, and that to me is one of the major failures of the Thatcher years.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget the dramatic impact she had by the simple fact of being the first female prime minister. That in itself was a singular achievement, and she used the fact rather astutely, combining stridency with charm that both infuriated and won over many of those with whom she had to deal.
Her strength and determination led to her successes (and much of the misery her policies caused) and it also led ultimately to her downfall. That was triggered by the poll tax – the local government taxation regime she forced through, against protests and riots and fierce opposition across the country. But it probably would have happened anyway, because Britain was, by 1990, simply getting tired of stridency and “conviction politics” that was by then morphing into bossiness. Twenty-three years on, perhaps we could do with a bit more conviction in our politics again.
I was first elected to the British Parliament in 1983, and for the next seven years I sat in opposition to Mrs Thatcher and her government. I could see all too horribly and clearly the impact her policies were having on the people of the inner-city, deprived constituency I represented. I opposed measure after measure that she introduced. But I could nonetheless have a modest admiration for the way in which she articulated her beliefs and set about putting them into action. She certainly left her mark.