I had the very great privilege of meeting the late Baroness Thatcher once. It was at the Conservative Party conference, Blackpool, 1997. Earlier that year the party had been crushed in a general election, and there was a general mood of depression and a concern about the potential decline of the party as a political force.
This was hard for many members of much longer standing than I to deal with. I had only joined the party in 1995 and had yet to experience us really winning any elections or, indeed, being at all popular. I was regaled with tales of the time when we won Newcastle Central, had several MPs in my birth city of Liverpool, when 22 Conservative MPs came from Wales and we were winning town after town across the midlands and north. Then, suddenly, it was no more.
The air of gloom and despair at the 1997 conference was lifted by just two people. Somehow, William Hague kept our party alive and started to revive it during his leadership, but the appearance of Baroness Thatcher at conference made all the difference.
I was born the year she came to power, and happily accept the epithet of being Thatcher’s Child. I grew up in Liverpool, then Ellesmere Port, with a family keen that I know from an early age what was happening in the world, but also keen not to preach their views at me and instead let me form my own. Even back then I had a sense of the dominance of Thatcher on our country and beyond. I watched as an awe-struck 10 year old the enormous changes unravelling towards the end of her time in power such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invasion of Kuwait, the lone protestor standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square.
When I began studying politics at A-level I soon understood that my beliefs, which had been shaped throughout my childhood, lay with the Conservatives. I had an understanding of the historic, theoretical and political context of Baroness Thatcher’s governments, including from the points of view of those who held, and continue to hold, very strong views opposing what she did. But it wasn’t until I was finally in the same room as her in Blackpool in 1997 that I understood precisely why she as a personality so electrified people. I will not attempt to describe the impact my short conversation with her had on me, because to do so would be impossible, but there was no doubt whatsoever that I was talking to a unique, powerful and utterly captivating person. Her dominance of the 1980s immediately made more sense than it ever did from reading or hearing about it from all those who supported or opposed her.
Thatcher’s time in office marked a major transformation of economic and social life in the UK, transformations which both Wilson and Heath had attempted but failed, and Callaghan had rejected almost outright. The body of UK politics & economics in the 1970s was rotten to the core. Workers were forced to pay high taxes to support bankrupt industries which they themselves actively chose to not buy from, and union barons tried to outdo each other in blackmailing government to give their members ever larger pay rises. All of these things crippled industry, scared off investment from home & abroad, fuelled inflation which destroyed any wage gains, forced the Callaghan government to go begging to the IMF for emergency loans and caused ever increasing rot which culminated in the Winter of Discontent.
The post-war consensus had turned from a valid necessity to rebuild a shattered country, into a noose around the neck of a nation in which politicians were told by civil servants to “manage our decline”. Thatcher had the vision to realise both that the decline was not inevitable and that the UK, if reshaped and reformed, could lead the world and create a new economic and social order. She was not the first doctor to identify the disease, but she was the first to make sure we took the medicine.
Some claim she was divisive. That handily ignores 3 substantial election victories, where she won more votes in the third than the first and in which she outpolled even Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997. It also ignores the fact that just about every survey rates her as by far the best post-war Prime Minister the UK has had. Those who were bound to disagree with the politics of a Conservative anyway clearly feel more animosity towards her than they do to her predecessors or successors, but every piece of evidence demonstrates that the bitter are small in number, if loud in volume. I am proud to put myself in the largest group of all; those who recognise that when we needed her, she came, and when we needed something doing, she did it. RIP Baroness Thatcher.
“If you set out to be liked, you wold be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”