Matthew Flinders: Softer side hidden within history’s Iron Lady

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WHY did Margaret Thatcher’s political career provoke such strong reactions and cast such a long shadow over the past, present and future of British politics? Approached in this manner at least three inter-linked issues deserve brief comment – her ideology, her style and her vulnerability.

First and possibly foremost, Margaret Thatcher forged a new relationship between the state and the market.

Having witnessed the trials and tribulations of the Heath government in the mid 1970s and then the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79, Mrs Thatcher was adamant that the relationship between the state and the market had to change.

From reforming the state to reducing the power of the trade unions, from privatisation to economic reform and from European affairs to selling-off council houses, Mrs Thatcher undoubtedly shifted the political-economy of Britain in ways that subsequent Prime Ministers have sought to modify or amend but not significantly alter.

It is possible to argue that a post-Thatcherite consensus appears to 
exist in a thread that runs through Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron. Whether this is viewed as a “good” or “bad” thing is for the moment secondary to the fact that Mrs Thatcher’s legacy has cast a shadow both far and wide.

If her policies were distinctive, then 
so, too, was her uncompromising political style. The ‘Iron Lady’ was a conviction politician in the sense that she believed in the capacity of her political philosophy and economic convictions to deliver positive social change.

There was no middle-way; you 
were either with her or against her. From her ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Conservative Party in October 1980 through to her European Union rebate negotiations, Mrs Thatcher was the original ‘Ronseal politician’ – to steal a coalition phrase – in the sense that her rhetoric was generally backed-up by subsequent political reality.

There is, however, a need to dig a little deeper. An obituary should expose the essence of a person and not simply repeat their achievements (or failures). To highlight Mrs Thatcher’s ideology or style – even to dissect the various subsequent forms of Thatcherism – are hardly new additions to a congested historical canvas.

To describe the “Iron Lady” as vulnerable might appear to some readers as an almost ridiculous statement but even the mighty Achilles had a weak heel.

Indeed, if – as I will argue - Mrs Thatcher exhibited three potential vulnerabilities in her life then it is possible to use these to further underline her remarkable career and achievements.

First and foremost, Mrs Thatcher was a woman who succeeded in a man’s world. She became an MP in 1959, the first woman to lead a major British political party in 1975 and the first female Prime Minister in 1979.

There is little doubt that in some ways being a women also brought advantages when faced with a political party that had overwhelmingly been educated in single sex public schools and were therefore ill-
prepared to deal with a powerful woman but it also brought with it a sense of exceptionalism and 
difference.

A second source of vulnerability stemmed from the fact that Mrs Thatcher was not “one of them”. Born the daughter of a grocery shop owner – indeed being brought up in the flat above the shop – she was not born into the “great and the good” British political establishment.

Indeed, resting between the lines of almost every political biography of Mrs Thatcher is a sense that she was always in the Conservative Party but never quite part of the Conservative Party; never quite accepted or respected by Tory grandees or elements of the political establishment.

This is a critical issue as her outsider-within status arguably helps explain her style of governing and her almost clinical approach to defining friends and enemies.

The final element of vulnerability 
has, I would argue, become clearest since her departure from frontline politics.

Since leaving the House of Commons at the 1992 General Election – saying that this would allow her more freedom to speak her mind – what has been most striking is the manner in which she generally refrained from heckling from the political sidelines.

Her illness may have played some role in this but I sense there was also a degree of social and political isolation; a sense that she no longer fitted in; a frustration that her “there is no such thing as society” speech was always taken out of context and used against her; or that anyone might want to hear what she had to say.

I could be wrong but deep down I can’t help but think that maybe the “Iron Lady” was a little softer than many of us understood.