A firm hand in troubled times

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NO British Prime Minister has arguably divided opinion to such a degree as Margaret Thatcher – a belief reinforced by the contrasting reactions to her death last April.

Yet the latest release of official documents pertaining to her premiership three decades ago offer a snapshot of the difficult path she was forced to navigate as she sought to lead this country through a uniquely turbulent period in its history.

On the domestic front, the escalation of the miners’ strike was such that there were genuine fears it could bring about the downfall of her government. At one point the situation was deemed so serious that Ministers considered declaring a state of national emergency.

A vivid illustration of the intransigence of both sides in the dispute is provided by newly-published minutes of a meeting between Arthur Scargill’s NUM and Ian MacGregor, the combative head of the National Coal Board, at which neither side was prepared to cede an inch of ground.

Later that same year, the Prime Minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when the IRA planted a bomb at her Brighton hotel. Records now reveal that it jeopardised the work Mrs Thatcher had been secretly engaged in for months prior to the incident as she sought to thrash out a deal with the Irish leadership.

Fearing more attacks would follow, the Iron Lady showed her mettle by deliberately cooling negotiations after the attack to avoid the impression of “being bombed into making concession to the Republic”.

Then there was her prescient awareness at a time of high unemployment of the vital importance of a deal with Japanese car giant Nissan, her intervention proving instrumental in the creation of a manufacturing plant in Sunderland where more than 6,000 people are still employed.

Though unlikely to change the opinion of her most ardent critics, these newly-released files should at least engender a greater appreciation of the challenges Mrs Thatcher faced. Indeed, some may think that by way of contrast those confronting today’s Government are markedly less formidable.

Furthermore, the records should also serve to further impress upon David Cameron the importance of decisive leadership at such times of instability, even if Mrs Thatcher’s own unique brand continues to provoke such fierce debate.

Brass neck of GPs

THERE is some merit in the assertion by GPs that patients should be charged for unnecessary A&E visits which heap further pressure on services and lead to longer waiting times for more serious cases.

Casualty departments are frequently clogged up with people whose conditions do not merit immediate treatment – and doctors insist a departure from the traditional NHS vision of care that is free at the point of delivery is now required to tackle the problem.

A third of GPs surveyed said they believe that having to pay up to £10 would dissuade many people from attending A&E at the “drop of a hat”, with the payment being handed back if the trip was subsequently found to be justified.

They also correctly pinpoint the substandard 111 telephone service as a factor, with under-qualified operators sending ambulances which are not required and needlessly directing many patients to A&E simply to ensure their backs are covered.

It is somewhat ironic, however, that GPs have come out in support of this idea when it is their long-standing resistance to providing out-of-hours services which has left many feeling they have no option but to attend their nearest accident and emergency department when they fall ill or sustain an injury.

This problem stems directly from the disastrous decision by the last Labour government to allow GPs to give up responsibility for out-of-hours care in return for sacrificing £6,000 a year in salary.

Quite rightly, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has now pledged to reverse this. The sooner he does so, the sooner some of this pressure on A&E services will be lifted.

Farewell Bernard

IN his near four decades as a leading Yorkshire Post columnist, Bernard Dineen may have been many things – but dull was never among them.

His willingness to expose the shortcomings and sophistry of the nation’s politicians perhaps had its roots in the appalling ethnic cleansing he witnessed in post-partition India.

He blamed the bloodshed he saw there on the lack of foresight of those within the Attlee government who hastened the division of a country which duly erupted in violence.

Later, as a weekly columnist for this newspaper, his incisive commentary on the issues of the day proved to be immensely popular with readers – even those who disagreed with him – and he soon built a dedicated following.

Yet he could also be a witty and urbane host, as those who attended the Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheons which he chaired quickly discovered.

It is the role of a good journalist to hold officials to account and highlight those occasions where the public are poorly served.

This Bernard achieved in spades. He will be much missed.