I was writing a comment about the wisdom of employing entrepreneurs yesterday when I got the news that Margaret Thatcher, one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century, had died following a stroke. I grew up and was studying for my law degree as she swept into power. She was a real and present part of my young adult life and inspired great hatred amongst us idealistic students.
The UK’s industrial relations were in a parlous state when she came to power. There were hundreds of wildcat strikes and the unions seemed to be bent on holding the state to ransom. She broke the destructive power of the unions. When Arthur Scargill lead the National Union of Mineworkers out for a national strike in 1984, she refused to capitulate. The miners would never have won that argument and it was wholly wrong of Scargill to place them in the desperate situation he did. It was a long and bitter fight, the whole thing was made much worse by violent clashes between pickets and police. The strike eventually collapsed; many mining communities have never recovered from the damage done at that time.
As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was determined to repair the country's finances by reducing the role of the state and boosting the free market. Cutting inflation was central to the government's policy and it introduced a radical budget of tax and spending cuts (sense of déjà vu at this point perhaps?).
In addition to cutting union militancy, she also introduced legislation to privatise state industries and allow council home owners to buy their houses. New monetary policies made the City of London one of the most vibrant and successful financial centres in the world, though probably paved the way to our more recent difficulties and she was criticised for getting rid of the UK’s manufacturing base. At one point unemployment rose above three million.
But she never faltered and in 1980 famously said at the Conservative Party Conference: "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch phrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to... the lady's not for turning."
In early 1982 the economy began to recover and, with it, the prime minister's standing among the electorate.
She was one of those marmite personalities – whether you loved or hated her, it was hard to be indifferent. I disliked her policies, though she was clearly a very remarkable person. While I could accept that many of the areas identified for reform by the Conservatives at that time were necessary, I loathed the execution and thought it wrongly and/ or badly done. I still do. But overall, her philosophy which was summed up in a magazine interview she gave in 1987, was probably the right one.
"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the government's job to cope with it!' or 'I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!'; 'I am homeless, the government must house me!' and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations."
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