The vitriol expressed by the hard Left at the time of Margaret Thatcher's death was evidence of the lasting impact of her premiership on British politics. Unwilling and unable to accept responsibility for the parlous state in which Britain found itself in the late 1970's her critics chose to emphasise Thatcher's supposed divisive and negative image by avoiding the salient facts which underpinned her success. For them 'she was a small-minded bigot, who destroyed British industry, widened inequality and unleashed a new era of greed and rampant individualism'. Yet in electoral terms she was 'the most successful party leader of the modern era but won a smaller share of the vote than any Conservative government since 1922 and fewer votes in absolute terms than her successor, John Major'. Although she gave her name to an ideology there is no agreement beyond a few generalities (privatisation, free markets, control over public expenditure, tax cuts, self-help and the enterprise culture) as to what it is and, unlike Blairism, it has out-lasted its founder.
Thatcher was a pioneer. Excluded from the Oxford Union because of her gender she joined the University Conservative Association and became only the third woman to hold the presidency. Prior to 1964 she would not have been able to win the leadership of the Conservative Party which had been in the hands of the 'magic circle' of grandees who chose Douglas-Home as successor to Macmillan. When she challenged Edward Heath for the leadership she was viewed as a stalking horse but defeated Heath on the first ballot and cantered home on the second. Although the Conservatives were in turmoil Callaghan's decision to postpone the election until 1979 and the 'Winter of Discontent' undermined Labour's claim to rule as 'Sunny Jim' returning from Guadeloupe in the West Indies was lampooned with, 'Crisis? What Crisis?' Like much of the Thatcher era it was defined by a Sun headline rather than by what happened.
Thatcher's first term was characterised by caution on reform but radicalism in economic policy. Income tax was cut, VAT raised, interest rates rose and foreign exchange controls were abolished. The result was a 25 per cent contraction in manufacturing, GDP shrank, unemployment rose and inflation hit 22 percent. However by 1983 the situation had improved and Thatcher's standing rose when she decided to oppose the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Despite claims to the contrary it did help the Conservatives win the 1983 election, although the divisions within the Labour Party were probably more significant.
Her second term saw the introduction of privatisation, North Sea oil revenues flooded in enabling the government to reduce public debt and make further cuts in income and business taxes. Trade unions were reformed and Thatcher did what Heath failed to do by taking on the miners. In an interesting chapter David Howell explains in detail the background to the strike including the NUM's structural and bargaining procedures. Pits were being closed prior to the strike not least because the NUM could not ensure a collective response to the closures. Many miners left the industry with generous redundancy terms rather than join the ranks of the unemployed.
Scargill's motives were to prevent a decline in the bargaining power of the NUM as its membership shrank and to fulfill his ideological wishful thinking of social revolution. Yet Howell concludes the length of the strike 'cannot be reduced to the imposed priorities of Scargill and his supporters' while acknowledging that Scargill's refusal to hold a national ballot on strike action alienated public opinion from the outset. It also stimulated opposition within some NUM areas for whom the failure to hold a ballot was a betrayal of internal union democracy. 'The NUM was...far removed from the solidarity and radicalism of left-wing legend and right wing paranoia'.
The paradox of Thatcherism was that it 'presided over and celebrated a culture of rampant materialism - 'fun, geed and money' - fundamentally at odds with her own values which were essentially conservative, old-fashioned and puritanical'. Ironically, 'Thatcherism enjoyed negative success as the corrosive agent which broke down the certainties of old forms of social life'. Thatcher was not an ideologue proclaiming the virtues of neo-liberalism. The source of neo-liberalism was the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) whose policy was to influence elites. Amongst those influenced were Sir Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe and while Thatcher became the mouthpiece for free markets it was those around her, including Howe and Alan Walters, who devised the policies. In practice, however, neo-liberalism was trumped by middle-class interests and political judgement which saw an increase in welfare spending.
Thatcher found it difficult to accept 'that Irish nationalists could never be brought to accept the democratic legitimacy of British sovereignty'. At the same time she was frustrated by the Ulster Unionists mumbling old slogans. It is significant she sought expert advice rather than impose her own view. Ultimately, 'her head was persuaded, her heart was not'. Nonetheless she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement which forced Sinn Fein on to the defensive. Willie Whitelaw had broken Unionist domination, Thatcher was the first prime minister to confront and face down the Unionists just as she had done with the IRA hunger strikers. Her courage in the aftermath of the Brighton bomb reduced Sinn Fein to a policy of outlasting Margaret Thatcher rather than pursuing armed conflict.
The baker's dozen of essays cover the making of Thatcherism, Thatcher's Britain and concludes with Thatcherism and the wider world. They undermine the myth of presidential rule which was created by the media. Thatcher was a leader whose political skills were honed by determination but whose policies were fashioned by the minds of others. A conviction politician for whom dissent was acceptable but was expressed too infrequently. It got much worse under Blair and Brown. A superb corrective to the 'wicked witch' mythology of the Left and worth five stars despite being written for an academic audience.