David Blunkett: The Opponent

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EVERY one of us will remember something about Margaret Thatcher that we admired or detested. That is the measure of the impact of this formidable woman.

One of the twists of our modern world is that people remember you best – and 
recall the best of you – when you have died, like the handwritten note Margaret Thatcher sent me on the death of my guide dog Teddy.

After just 15 months in the House of Commons, he had already become a loved and familiar appendage and, although at the time I found it hard to believe that the Prime Minister had a heart, it was obviously there somewhere if only you could touch it!

But it is as leader of the city of Sheffield for seven of Margaret Thatcher’s years in office that I will always recall her premiership. Yes, taking on outdated industrial and economic practices and showing leadership where there had clearly been drift.

But – and it is a very big but – the industrial north suffered grievously in the 1980s. Necessary change was accelerated to the point where it was not possible to plan for that restructuring of our industrial base. North Sea oil was squandered on incapacity benefit and three and a half million unemployed.

What Margaret Thatcher understood, and the lesson that we appear to have to keep learning, is that we do live in a global economy and that rapid change is with us whether we like it or not.

What, in retrospect, her time should also show us, is that it is necessary for government to help with such restructuring and to ensure the cost is not paid for by the destruction of our social fabric or the wellbeing of individuals. The collapse of major industry in my city of Sheffield, and the 50,000 jobs which disappeared in less than three years, resulted in much more than simply the loss of income to the individual and their family.

Apprenticeships, with all the mentoring and socialising which they entailed, virtually collapsed. The Full Monty may have been amusing for some, but it was a tragic parody for me of the impact on social relationships as well as a deterioration of the glue which holds society together.

So, as Margaret Thatcher could not forgive those in her own party who had deposed her, I find it difficult to forgive her for the lasting damage to a sense of community and common identity which I grew up with in my beloved city.

So what will be her legacy?

Undoubtedly, one of shaking the country out of its complacency and managing to achieve in some areas of our lives what previous governments had attempted – for instance, Barbara Castle’s brave efforts to bring in In Place Of Strife which would have shot Margaret Thatcher’s fox in terms of industrial relations if implemented.

Britain’s standing in the world was undoubtedly enhanced by her clever presentation as the Iron Lady, undoubtedly assisted by the able Yorkshireman who managed to never to be dubbed a spin doctor, Sir Bernard 
Ingham, her Head of Press, who has to take credit for much of her image.

Nowhere can this profile of image over substance be seen more vividly than in her stance on Europe. Opponent of withdrawal from the European Union, signatory to the Single European Act in 1986 and adversary of German unification, she was indeed a woman of contradiction as well as of conviction.

Yet, the lessons for good and ill are still being learnt.

The increase rather than decrease in dependency which was created in the 1980s still has a resonance in the “battle” over welfare today. For the Labour Party as well as the coalition, a reading of history would not come amiss in understanding how the electorate feel on this touchstone issue.

In the mining and industrial areas today, the aftermath of the Thatcher era can still be felt in the breakdown of the social fabric.

Of course a willingness to take the tide – and a readiness to act decisively – can make all the difference in politics.

President Galtieri of Argentina and the invasion of the Falklands, the bellicose and failed leadership of Arthur Scargill and the deep divisions in the Labour opposition all spring to mind.

So, in reflecting on an extraordinary life and if you will, wishing her to rest in peace, I also feel, as many must, ambivalent about this remarkable lady.

If only her quality of leadership and her instinct for understanding the British people had been accompanied by a greater sensitivity and willingness to listen, and above all an understanding of the 
industrial communities in the north of England, some of the bitter memories and the divisiveness of her premiership would be more readily overlaid by an appreciation of the strength of her character and the determination which so many hanker for today.