16 April 2013

The Margaret Thatcher Era 1979-1990. How things changed

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, LG,OM,PC, FRS, (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013), was a British politician, the longest-serving (1979–1990) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom    of the 20th century, and the only woman to have held the post. A Soviet journalist called her the ''Iron Lady'', a nickname which became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style.  As Prime Minister she implemented Conservative policies that have come to be known as Thatcherism.

This is how I remember it.  I remember Maggie Thatcher winning the 1979 election and becoming the first woman Prime Minister in the UK. My immediate reaction was shock and anger that a woman was now about to lead the country and a conservative one at that. As a young somewhat uneducated 21 year old from a staunch labour voting former mining community (it was already a ‘former’ mining community in 1979). At the time I was serving in the British Army and understood or cared very little about politics.

By 1981 I was a student at university reading business studies. The same year Margaret Thatcher had become a very unpopular prime minister. Becoming a student union representative I remember marching with fellow students in London where we all shouted ‘’Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out’’. I even got to interview the buffoon known as Neil Kinnock. But I became a student because I was hungry to succeed in life and I knew I could only do this through a university education. So I began to read and read and read.

In April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. I admit to being one of those among the great majority who declared ‘’Where…? What are the Argentinians doing off the coast of Scotland?’’. Most people had no idea where to find the Falklands on a map. Mrs Thatcher dispatched a Task Force to the South Atlantic and it was the Falklands war that transformed her into the kind of leader the country really needed. It was good to be British.

Let’s go back to 1979. The UK had become known as the ‘Sick man of Europe’.
The trade unions controlled just about everything. In 1977 the country had to take a loan from the IMF. The Government still controlled major industries which were very badly managed.  Electricity power cuts were the norm due to industrial action by the miner’s union. Industrial disputes and strikes were common. Trades Union leaders were gaining more control and made increasing demands on the Government. The UK was almost unmanageable. Unemployment was high.

It was not easy being a ‘non-socialist’ student in the city of Sheffield. In fact the city had become known as ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ I had transformed my whole thinking about trade unions and the Labour party and could clearly understand why the country needed to change and the policies being offered by Margaret Thatcher through private enterprise and a free market economy seemed the best way forward for UK plc. Sheffield was a dream world for socialists and many of them were university academics.  On more than one occasion I demanded that lecturers stop talking politics and get on with the lecture, I still needed to understand much more about economics before my final year although it was being taught according to the socialist ideals of the academics. We were required to read a book ‘Public Policy and Administration in the Soviet Union’, because ‘‘you need to understand the alternatives’’.

In 1983 I wrote a ‘readers letter’ to my local newspaper to expressed my concern about the recent activities of the trade unions in the area plus the fact the local Labour controlled authority were blaming the Thatcher Government for just about everything. I explained that I was about to graduate soon, but if I didn’t find a job I would not be blaming the Government of the day in fact I was already tired of trade unions running the country or words to that effect. As a result of the letter being published I was contacted by the local Conservative Association and as the saying goes ‘’the rest is history’. It was the first time a ‘Vote Conservative’ poster appeared in our street. My parents said they were receiving threats about the possibility of bricks being thrown through our windows.

The Conservative party won the 1983 election and Maggie Thatcher was returned to power.   I’m sure the thought of Labour’s Michael Foot as Prime Minister scared most of the electorate.  The transformation of the UK economy and many industries continued. The introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ council houses was perhaps one of the major benefits taken up by the majority of Labour supporters. The Conservatives continued to break the power of the unions.  A few weeks after graduating from university I quickly found a job. The job included the added benefit of a company car.

The miner’s strike and various protests during 1984 are probably most remembered by anti-Thatcher supporters. Perhaps Maggie Thatcher made a serious error by declaring Arthur Scargill and the miners as the ‘enemy within’. Although the previous Labour government closed more pits than the Conservatives it is Maggie who will be remembered for totally destroying the mining industry.

I remember the period 1984-1989 as an economic boom. In June 1987 Maggie Thatcher and her cabinet were re-elected and returned to power again.  In August the same year I was so confident and motivated I started my own business. My bank agreed to give me a business loan which was 75% guaranteed by the Governments DTI Small firms loan guarantee scheme.  Maggie Thatcher’s vision was for the UK to be transformed into a nation of business leaders and wealth creators. I was now a product of the Thatcher era.

I certainly remember 1989-90 as the economy was looking gloomy again. I remember the interest on my mortgage was at 15%.  Maggie Thatcher was clearly seen as a bully inside her own cabinet of ministers. She remained the only woman in the cabinet and dominated all cabinet meetings. Her ministers were later to ensure that it was time for her to go.   I clearly remember Michael Heseltine challenging Maggie Thatcher in the Conservative Party leadership contest. By this time I was a supporter of Heseltine as he was one of those politicians who had business experience and already a multi-millionaire he was not in the habit of being bullied by Mrs Thatcher. Many people blame Heseltine for her downfall but it was the lack of support from the remaining members of her cabinet that sealed her fate as leader.

Mrs Thatcher certainly aroused opinions. She was liked and disliked in equal proportion. She became a hate figure for those on the Left and many members of the Labour Party.  Perhaps her hatred of socialism and her following of the free market economist Friedrich Haydek were her driving forces towards changing the UK.  I agreed with her on many things but also disagreed on many things but overall I certainly agreed more. Particularly on business matters for example it was her understanding and quite rightly that only businesses created wealth, not governments and the privatisation of state owned industries was one of her best decisions.

During her period in office many public sector controlled services were privatised including British Airways, British Gas, British Steel and British Telecom plus the electricity companies and water and sewerage providers.  The British tax payer was no longer responsible for the large subsidies each one of these services required from the country each year. Today the government no longer has the burden of providing these services to the public. I have yet to find a service delivered by public/civil servants that is better than any provided by the private sector. However I think everyone agrees that the National Health Service would be a step too far towards any further privatisation.

Mrs Thatcher resigned on 22nd November 1990. Her husband Denis died on 26th June 2003 he was 88.She leaves a daughter Carol and a son Mark and grandchildren Amanda and Michael Thatcher.Many people report that she started to deteriorate both mentality and physically after the loss of Denis.She will be remembered all around the world. I’m sure a great many people will be paying tribute at her funeral in London tomorrow.