Bucking Destiny

Champange flutes and pint glasses will clink next Tuesday when the 21st anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s departure from office is marked.

Her former political secretary, John Whittingdale, this week gave a fond tribute to his erstwhile boss, who is portrayed by Meryl Streep in the movie about to hit cinema screens.

She didn’t just put this country straight, he argued. She actually helped to put this world straight.

This is the type of remark which drives Thatcher critics to distraction. The Tory leader’s battles with trade unions are seen by some on the Left as nothing less than a war against the working class.

What links her fans and detractors is the sense that Thatcher interrupted the natural course of things, that she put Britain – and arguably the world – on a different trajectory.

Left-leaning idealists argue that Britain, as a European nation, should have used its North Sea oil wealth to follow the social democratic model of the Scandinavian countries or built up a modern economy with a revived manufacturing core capable of fuelling German standards of prosperity. They remember her reign as an ill-fated embrace of an American vision of capitalist society which has weakened both the economy and our social fabric.

But her admirers rejoice that she helped to end the Cold War and that she gave Ronald Reagan unstinting support in confronting the Soviet Union. They celebrate her chutzpah in sending armed forces to fight a war off the coast of Argentina and shredding regulations to ensure London remained a world financial capital.

Mr Whittingdale, who is today an MP and chairman of the Culture, Media & Sport select committee, admitted that for a few moments she wondered whether she could continue as PM but not as leader of the Conservatives. She was quickly persuaded this was impossible, but at a time when eastern Europe was throwing off Communist shackles and a global coalition was about to battle Saddam Hussein, she was not ready to leave the stage.

More than two decades on, a sense of unfinished business defines Westminster. On the left, the dream of the UK as a social democratic paradise remains distant; on the right, her successors still view the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and look at the country’s slippage in international competitiveness league tables with alarm.

Thatcher remains a compelling figure because she forces us to ask what type of country we want. She shows that even in the confines of modern politics the parameters of conventional wisdom can be challenged; in this sense she can inspire iconoclasts on both the Left and the Right.

A Thursday Column

Blog Archive