Thatcher's legacy is a lesson for France
I decided yesterday already that I would avoid joining the crowd in writing a column on the late Baroness Thatcher. I revived that decision this morning. Then, quite inevitably, as one of Thatcher’s children, I suppose I just couldn’t not.
She won the general election of 1979 to become Prime Minister. That is 34 years ago. Assuming one is not politically aware until one is, say, 10 years old, then a person would now need to be 44 to consciously remember her gaining power and 33 years old to be equally conscious of her ignominious ejection from the leadership of this country.
I pass on both counts. In fact, as a young politics and history graduate I worked on the 1979 Conservative campaign. At the time I was, in fact, very close to entering serious full-time politics but fortunately thought the better of it and I have subsequently led a happy and blameless life instead.
The media have been full of Thatcher since the news of her death broke yesterday afternoon and, by and large, the coverage has been comprehensive and balanced, although I was staggered by the mealy-mouthed performance by Labour’s Clare Short on the wireless yesterday afternoon. I suppose that small-minded people remain small minded even in big moments.
Yes, I admit that for me Maggie walked on water. However, I also admit that I was happy to see the back of her when she finally fell. It was a sad ending for a great leader but it was not untimely. She had done all she could and it was time to hand the baton to the next generation.
In my view, her greatest achievement was not, as she boasted, Tony Blair but it was to break what had become a seemingly irresistible push to the left. Reading about the “Winter of Discontent” tells you nothing; you need to have experienced a country at a standstill and at the mercy of the unions to understand. Politics and society in this country had become like a ratchet railway which could either go left or go nowhere but which could not go back. It was her Gordian Knot. She resolved this by simply picking up the train, turning it round and putting back on the tracks. What her opponents hated then and still hate so fervently about her was the ease and simplicity with which she had disarmed them. They still refuse to accept that she was knocking at an open door and one which they had opened for her.
Did she really de-industrialise Britain? I think probably not. She simply cranked open the flood gates and caused to happen what was probably going to happen anyhow. Those industries which were efficient and competitive survived – and many did – it was those which were not inherently fit which fell victim to her open market policies.
The French disease
And this brings me away from 1980s Britain and to modern day France which had no Thatcherite revolution and which is, in many respects, the last remaining bastion of 1970s corporatism and which is struggling to come to terms with the legacy.
Has France’s rejection of Thatcher’s belief in the primacy of the aspirational individual made it a better or a lesser place? Surely it is neither nor. But France is now going through the same de-industrialisation process which the UK went through 30 years ago, albeit without the benefit of a dynamic global economy around which to reshape itself.
It was French President Mitterrand who said of Maggie that she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe. I wonder what Hollande would have made of her for although Mitterrand was a socialist too, he had an air of pragmatism which his incumbent successor appears to lack.
Perhaps it could be argued that all Thatcher did was to push a moribund and outdated industrial base over the edge. One way or the other, her actions were highly divisive but the past few years have demonstrated here in Europe that anybody who tells the people of a country that they are not working hard enough, that they are living beyond their means and who does something about it becomes a figure of collective hate. Mutti Merkel would know exactly what I mean.
Much went wrong during the Thatcher years but what she did, perhaps unwittingly, was to prepare this country for the 21st century. Despite the moaning and the groaning, it has dynamic capital and a flexible labour force. Sunset industries are gone and, if one could teach Generation Y to “reed and rite, m8”, the platform for a successful future would be set.
The invisible Scotsman who abolished the boom and bust cycle and who saved the world (and is probably lionised by Clare Short) did all he could to blow the first entrant advantage away but I remain optimistic that the changes which Mrs T initiated will, in the long term, serve this country well.
As the saying goes “Mar(garet)-Might; love it or hate it”.