Exactly 40 years ago, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister as the electorate, wearied by the Winter of Discontent, decided to hand power to a politician who believed greatness still lay ahead for her country.
1979 is now widely accepted as a turning point in British political life, a time when the post-war consensus politics, which had been built around the mixed economy and welfare state, was dashed to pieces by Thatcherism.
In the decade that followed, the argument runs, Mrs Thatcher ruthlessly dispensed with her enemies both inside and outside the Conservative party, tamed the unions and unleashed the power of the market to revive the sick man of Europe.
The truth is a little more complicated. Few thought the country was set on such a decisive course in 1979. Mrs Thatcher secured 44 per cent of the vote, which was a smaller share than Ted Heath gained when he triumphed at the 1970 election. Labour had won four out of the previous six elections.
During the campaign, even the most pessimistic Labour politician would not have believed that the party was about to be ejected from power for almost two decades. But Britain was about to undergo fundamental changes.
Labour had returned to government in 1974 after convincing the electorate its “social contract” with the unions would limit wage demands, tame inflation and reduce industrial chaos.
Mrs Thatcher’s election as Tory leader in 1975 undoubtedly signalled that politics was moving to the right. But it’s often forgotten that it was Labour who first adopted policies of monetary control under the watchful eye of the International Monetary Fund in 1976. Little good it did them.
The “social contract” fell apart in the winter of 1978-79 in the face of high wage demands and strikes which brought chaos to the private and public sectors. Many strikers were low-paid workers whose living standards were being wrecked by inflation.
As the historian Dominic Sandbrook noted in his book Seasons in the Sun: “What drove the Winter of Discontent was not socialism but something often regarded as the core of Thatcherism: the pursuit of material security. The strikers outside ports, schools and hospitals were not campaigning for a New Jerusalem: as they saw it, they were fighting to protect their living standards from the ravages of inflation.”
Mrs Thatcher’s premiership got off to a terrible start, with her uncompromising right-wing policies proving unpopular and ineffective. They were responsible for bankruptcies, economic contraction, greatly increased unemployment and initially, continuing inflation, according to the respected academics Bill Jones and Dennis Kavanagh.
Labour lurched to the left under Michael Foot while the stunning rise in popularity of the new Social Democratic Party showed that support remained for the post-war consensus.
And then came the Falklands War. In early 1982, the Conservatives were struggling to reach an approval rating of 20 per cent in the opinion polls. After the victory in the South Atlantic, Mrs Thatcher soared to a 10 to 15 per cent lead.
Kevin Theakston, Professor of British Government at the University of Leeds, said: “The key election victory was probably the 1983 landslide when the Conservatives won a majority of 144, helped by the split of the opposition vote between Labour and the SDP/Liberal Alliance, which virtually guaranteed two more terms of office.”
She may have been lucky to face divided and often hapless opponents, but there can be no question that Mrs Thatcher’s driven personality shaped her premiership.
“What was remarkable, was the way in which, over her premiership, her government became more – rather than less – radical and innovative,” said Professor Theakston.
“The privatisation policy, for instance, was not the result of a clear blueprint drawn up in opposition but developed piecemeal in office and built up momentum as a central and defining ‘Thatcherite’ policy only after 1983.
“In other areas, such as local government and education, increasingly radical policies were put together through the 1980s as the Government struggled to learn from experience, respond to events and keep the initiative.
“Mrs Thatcher was a dynamic force, aiming by force of will and force of personality to bury the old consensus, fill the ideological vacuum and transform the economy, society and social attitudes.”
Her two most popular policies – the reforms of the trade unions and allowing tenants to buy their council houses – showed that she had the most important quality for any politician; a grasp of the issues that mattered to the electorate.
Forty years on, she divides opinion more than ever, but nobody can deny her place among the most powerful Prime Ministers.
Dr Christopher Fear, of the Department of Politics at the University of Hull, said: “For her detractors the legacy is one of poverty and social breakdown in our big cities and former industrial regions, especially in Wales and the North of England, a North-South divide, the lasting political norm of underfunding public services, and the guilt-free pursuit of wealth.
“For her admirers, however, Thatcher’s legacy is nothing less that the rapid modernisation and regeneration of Britain, economically and in terms of national confidence.”
If nothing else, Margaret Thatcher proved that a single personality can leave an indelible imprint on every aspect of political life.
Greg Wright is Deputy Business Editor of The Yorkshire Post.