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Maggie Thatcher’s Unassailable Legacy

By Boris Johnson, The Telegraph - May 4, 2009

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Monday 04 May 2009 | Margaret Thatcher feed | All feeds

By Boris Johnson Last Updated: 8:23PM BST 03 May 2009

Comments 49 | Comment on this article

In the course of researching this article I approached an intelligent 15 year-old girl. She had been born three years after Margaret Thatcher left office. She had never seen her in action. She had no personal memories of any of the great controversies of the Thatcher epoch. And, therefore, she struck me as a perfect source for an understanding of the full semiotic range of the words "Margaret Thatcher" in the minds of young people today. This schoolgirl had been taught by good left-liberal teachers. She had read the papers and listened all her life to the BBC, and she had the normal British teenager's range of cultural references. I tried a word-association test. "So what do you think," I asked her, "when I say the words 'Margaret Thatcher' "? She paused, and then she said: "Billy Elliott."

And there, my friends, you have the cultural war that continues to this day – 30 years after she came to power – over the legacy of Britain's first female prime minister. Not since Napoleon has a nation been so divided over the merits of a former leader. For millions of young people who have watched Billy Elliott, Thatcher is the evil, boss-eyed termagant whose disastrous economic philosophy was responsible for the break-up of ancient Hovis-ad mining communities, and whose awful blurtings of right-wing dogma inspired all that was basest in human nature. She was a semi-ludicrous mixture of Boudicca and Queen Victoria, who whipped up her folk to ecstasies of cretinous Brussels-bashing. She was the creator the Yuppies and Essex Man, and the spiritual godmother of all the red-braced spivs and champagne-guzzling wide boys who have done so much damage with their greed and their recklessness – and it is a measure of her totemic status that people manage to blame her for the credit crunch almost two decades after she left office.

You try going on the BBC's Question Time and announcing that you are a Thatcherite. You will see the audience scratching and raging and panting like flea-ridden gibbons because Thatcher is a boo-word in British politics, a shorthand for selfishness and me-first-ism, and devil-take-the-hindmost and grinding the faces of the poor. The Lib Dems recently shoved a leaflet through my door, and the worst they could say about Gordon Brown was that he had invited Margaret Thatcher to tea at Downing Street. So, for the benefit of all 15 year-olds who are brought up on the BBC and who have derived the impression from Billy Elliott that she was a brute who sent riot police to smash the miners' strike, it is time to spool back 30 years to 1979 – when I turned 15 myself – and remember what an amazing job she did.

I have somewhere a rather pretentious painting I did in 1975. It shows the white cliffs of Dover on a very drizzly day, as seen from the deck of an approaching Townsend Thorensen ferry. The caption is, "Welcome to Britain, home of the economic crisis." It is very hard to explain to young people the atmosphere of morbid self-pity that used to hang over Britain in the Seventies. British brands that had once been the envy of the world – machines whose manufacturers had out-engineered the Wehrmacht – had been reduced to laughing stocks, their reputations destroyed by a lethal combination of management inertia and union militancy. The country had so drifted from an understanding of free-market economics that Tony Benn actually tried to revive the motorbike industry with a sort of crazed commie collective at Meriden. There were endless strikes, and three-day weeks, and power cuts, and looming over it all was the Cold War – and the constant anxiety that we would somehow be embroiled in a conflict with the nasty, militaristic and totalitarian Soviet Union, a horrible place of gulags and lawless persecutions. Our food was ranked among the worst in Europe – by the British middle classes themselves.

Our children's teeth were ruined by a diet of Spangles, Curly-Wurlies and Tizer, and our weather was lousy. Mrs Thatcher set about changing virtually everything, except possibly the weather. Now, don't get me wrong. I was never one of those acnoid Tory boys who had semi-erotic dreams about Margaret Thatcher. She never visited me at night in her imperial-blue dress and bling and magnificent pineapple-coloured hair. I never imagined her leaning over me and parting her red lips to whisper about monetarism and taming union power. But, even as an apathetic and cynical teenager, I could see that she was doing some tough things, and the moment I came down most vehemently on her side was the Falklands conflict of 1982. So many people I knew seemed to think she was wrong, and bellicose. I remember my grandfather frequently saying that he was going to shoot her. You will still meet left-wing bores who say that she deliberately ignored the "Peruvian Peace Plan". And yet what she did was so clear and so right.

The Argentinian junta had taken by violence a British protectorate, in clear contravention both of international law and the wishes of the islanders. It took fantastic balls to send the antiquated British Navy half-way round the world, and risk disaster on those desolate beaches and moors. It took nerves of steel to sink the Belgrano, and, frankly, I don't think there were any other Tory politicians who would have done it. She showed a streak of absolute ruthlessness in defence of British interests, and, as the Eighties went on, it was clear that she was broadly right about the economy as well. Together with Norman Tebbit, she did what Barbara Castle had tried and failed to do – to dethrone the union bosses and give British industry a chance.

By the time Arthur Scargill took the miners out on strike, I was firmly on her side. He was simply increasing the difficulties of a declining industry, and what the script of Billy Elliott will not tell you is that Scargill never held a proper ballot. By the end of the Eighties, she had cut taxes and the economy was roaring away; and it wasn't just that the country as a whole seemed to have recovered some of its confidence and standing in the world. Individuals were able to take control of their destiny in a new way. They were no longer completely beholden to local authorities for their housing: they could buy their own homes, and to this day, as any Tory canvasser will tell you, there are people across Britain who will always vote Tory in thanks for that freedom alone.

She gave people the confidence to buy shares, to start their own businesses, to move on and up in society – and there was more social mobility under Margaret Thatcher than there has been since. She was a liberator, and she gave the Labour party such an intellectual thrashing that they ended up changing their name. In some ways, the most significant political legacy of Margaret Thatcher is New Labour (now being abolished by Gordon Brown). Yes, she was provocative, and there are huge numbers of people who will never forgive her for saying that "there is no such thing as society. There are men and women, and there are families." It sounds frighteningly atomistic and strident, and does not seem to reflect the duty we all owe to each other.

But she believed she had to shatter the post-war consensus that the solution to every problem was always an expansion of the state. Indeed, she did not think much of the word consensus itself, since it was not only too Latinate for her taste but also because it probably masked a conspiracy by cowardly politicians to dodge the hard questions, and, if you look at the consensus that now exists around, say, academic selection, you can see that she is right.

Margaret Thatcher will always divide the British people, not least since we are ourselves divided. There is a part of us that will always dislike the acquisitive, appetitive instincts she seemed to espouse, and yet we also recognise that they are essential for economic success. More than any leader since Churchill, she said thought-provoking things about the relationship between the state and the individual. Some of them were unpalatable, some of them were exaggerated. But much of what she said was necessary, and it took a woman to say it.

Comments: 49

Read both you and the Mirror and also read the comments on your article. One unassailable fact. She divided the country then and that division still exists, the British version of the Grand Canyon. Ref Abe Lincoln on a house divided. The house of Britain has fallen and not a Winston in sight

Boris has a very selective memory for Margaret Thatcher`s policies, either being unaware or turning a blind eye to her many disasters. He is right that MT set out to change virtually everything in Britain. But it is ludicrous to suggest that her policies allowed individuals to take control of their own destinies, when she made millions unemployed in the 1980s, and impoverished millions more by the large tax increases she imposed on the segments of society she did not favour. Boris is totally wrong that social mobility increased under MT, rather it declined sharply as a result of her deliberate policies of the Poll Tax and the promotion of private education at the expense of public schooling. The poll tax forced those who cost councils little because they lived at high densities in humble dwellings to subsidise the lairds in their mansions, and their ilk. On education, MT deliberately forced down the wages of public-school teachers in comparison to private-school teachers, so that the latter schools would be clearly superior. I have letters from civil servants who were forced to take the Tory party line, saying how much it was in the national interest that State-school teachers should have their wages cut. MT also allowed hospital waiting lists to increase and destroyed the morale of the nursing profession by her deliberate curtailment of spending on health. So an enormous debt was built up by the end of the disastrous Tory 18 years, a debt not shown as a percent of GDP, but in the gross underpayment of many public-sector staff that simply could not be sustained when unemployment fell and recruitment to public-sector jobs plummeted. Because so many Tories are now praising Margaret Thatcher, it obvious that success for David Cameron at the next election will bring a more-divided society and hence more crime, even though that is clearly not his wish. But DC is clearly powerless to stand up to the right-wing bullies still motivated by personal greed.

And just how much milk will Gordon & co be snatching if they remain in power? The loony lefties never learn. Milk is only affordable if you have enough money in your purse. If you don't work or wish to be paid more than your work can earn you have to go into debt to fund your lifestyle. At some stage you have to pay off your debts or you go bankrupt. The socialists are fond of referring to "resources" as if there is a pot of lovely PC-approved money clicking its heels and just waiting for the Govt to spend on "nice" projects. The reality is, if you are heavily in debt, you have no such resources. Maggie was not perfect by a long chalk but she got a lot of things spot on. So much so that socialism had to be ditched for something New. That is why she rid us of the Sick Man tag. Funny how she was apparently so awful but managed such a feat! Maggie restored pride in our nation and made it fit for purpose again. A staggering achievement given the mess the last Labour disaster visited upon us. What a travesty that the New socialists have spent 12 incompetent years ensuring we are in so much debt, we can't afford the milk bill again.

Margaret Thatcher did create an atmosphere in which people had the optimism to raise a second mortgage and launch their own business. I was one of them, the son of a teacher and not brought up to take chances of that kind. But your correspondent who still bandies-about the leftist shibboleth of the 'poll tax' shows how powerful have become the image makers [or in this case, destroyers]. By any stretch of the imagination, the Community Charge [to give it its unemotive correct name] was going to be fairer than the rating system, which remains a scourge in the lives of those on small fixed incomes but whose voices were not loud enough to drown out the lefist thugs. I suppose it was inevitable that the dodgy coalition of power-crazed supporters of loony causes [New Labour] would eventually be assembled. But with perfect hypocrisy it made [thank God] no steps to change the laws on secret union ballots which had been one of the sticks with which Margaret Thatcher was beaten. Why? Because it was so utterly sane, reasonable and necessary that in their occasional moments of sanity, even the political left acknowledges that it was the right thing to do. The political system of Britain is usually a shoddy disgrace. It is a minor miracle when occasionally it chooses someone who is up to the job. As Boris indicates, Margaret Thatcher was one of those; a mature, determined person who knew that Billy Elliot is a typical piece of childish 'want my cake and eat it and nasty Mummy won't let me' socialist, populist drivel.

Thatcher did manipulate the police and army to destroy the miners and help to create a philophosy that helped to create the current problems we have and her affiliation with Reagan is no different to what Blair emulated. Describing her as 'Billy Liar' would not be inapropriate. She helped create the self interested politicians we now have and the corrupt society we live in. Forgotten her son and his gun running? What happened to him. Her husband appeared permenantly drunk and I'm not surprised. I was a policeman during several riots including the miners strike and saw The 'Met' lighting cigars with �20 notes in front of miners who were fighting for their right to work and feed their families. She is and never was a prime minister to be proud of. She merely was a ruthless person who cared about nothing but herself, her family, and would willingly give away the lives of brave servicemen for a piece of this world that is only fit for sheep to live on. Have you forgotten the Belgrano? She even thought she was better than the Queen.

Hindsight is wonderfull, and all these lovely posters singing the praises to the Iron Lady brings tears to my tired old eyes. Just wait about 12 mnoths though, then, Boy Dave or whoever has the shout, will have to do to the Sir Humphrey brigade,what Thatcher did to real workers, I think when the bowler hatted heroe's discover their taxpayer funded lifestyle is about to hit the wall, the screams will be heard all the way from Whitehall to Barnsley.

Nonsense. Thatcher was an utter failure. Forget about every policy but two. Firstly she claimed that she wanted everyone to have opportunity - yet allowed the grammar and academy school systems to be replaced by the comprehensive disaster - and this from an ex-education shadow minister who must have seen what was coming. How on earth can joe bloggs get on in life without even the vestige of a decent education? This disasterous policy actively selected for those who could afford private education to have real 'opportunity'. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, she failed to use her majority to bring in a system of PR thereby protecting forever the essentially conservative (with a small c)British people from the worst excesses of left wing governments. And before anyone talks about Italy and constant weak government, there are plenty PR systems capable of delivering strong government. These two things will always mean that whether you think she was a blessing or a disaster, we can all agree she was a blip, and by her own doing, and a blip is not a success any more than a swallow is a summer.

I think Boris you have overlooked Mrs T's greatest but less obvious accomplishment. She showed us all that our continued decline or salvation as a cuntry was up to us alone. The previous Governments and Prime Ministers, Labour and Conservative, had given up, shirked the really difficult decisions, and looked to Brussels to do what they should have done. We have since slumped back into never never land again.

If I was Dylan I'd sue. Fact is Thatcher was a serial failure.Tried to be a chemist - failed.Tried to be a lawyer - failed. Tried to be a politician and buggered everything up.Tried to be a parent.Look at the state of her children. She is vile.

The problem with Mrs T was she wrecked as much as she cured. The union's were indeed out of control and something needed to be done but wrecking the car just to get at the driver was a bit extreeme. I suspect a degree of nostalgia is driving some of these fond memories Boris. When she introduced the poll tax she affected the bottom feeders and low life who had no intention of ever paying their way so they got out of bed and took to the streets in violent protests. Since those times the council tax has turned into a milch cow for this odious regime crippling the most vunerable while those very same low life who protested still live on benefits at the expence of all those who work for their living or are retired. The city was all Mrs T supported and just look at what happened when those not so wizz kids were let lose, they broke the banks and a lot more besides. We needed balance and we got dogma that divided our society. I really think David Cameron is a different kettle of fish and is a decent man who will listen for a change. I for one do not envy him after what wrecker Brown has done to our economy. To be fair to Mrs T though to see what she was up against just look no further than the RMT!.

Socialists hate success (though they dress this up in fine words, like 'fairness', 'equality' and 'social justice'), so inevitably they will always hate Thatcher. They wouldn't be invited to dinner parties if they didn't. Like Boris Johnson (10 years my junior), I was a sceptic persuaded by her stunning performance. She was, uniquely, a politician who actually meant what she said and made things happen; but I said all along that her biggest failing was in education, and that this will prove terminal for the hopes she inspired for Britain. I believe as Education Secretary she saw through the demolition of grammar schools initiated by bitter socialists, but also as Prime Minister she allowed the Left to seize total control of state education, with the 'Billy Elliot' result which is all too familiar.

We are still too close to the 1970s and '80s to have an objective view. You only have to read some of the tripe posted amongst these comments by the predictable Thatcher haters. They, together with the 15 year old you questioned, are - I fear - doomed to live with her illusions. To quote (poorly) from my memories of Derek Jacobi in "I, Claudius" - "Let all the poison that lurks in the mud hatch out." ie the poison that lurks in the mud of the whole Labour movement has some way yet to run... and to ruin.

also, without Margaret Thatcher there would almost certainly have been no Red Ken Livingstone, and he turned out all right, he is seems quite nice when you hear him on the radio now. Margaret Thatcher's battle with the GLC was interesting too, with rebel councils etc, and selling off those council flats, some people must have made a killing! That diviseness that she , or the era, created was palpable.

Well said Boris. She did much good even while she got a few things deadly wrong. But as you say she left a legacy of teaching people to stand on their own two feet and create their own destinies. By contrast the only things we shall remember and the "dear leader" from Edinburgh for is wasted spending.

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