Mrs Thatcher and me
Not unexpectedly, the online world has been all about Margaret Thatcher over the past 24 hours. It is what you would expect because whatever else anyone might want to say about her, she was a force to be reckoned with, and she changed things in the world.
Few would deny that, and certainly I don’t see anyone arguing the case for her irrelevance, but some of the online contributions right now are pretty extreme in their attacks on Mrs Thatcher. Maybe to my surprise – given that when she was Prime Minister of the UK I was pretty strong in my opposition to what she was doing – I am not inclined at all to share in the vitriol of many of those whose opinions I might otherwise respect.
I was only eligible to vote in one of the UK general elections in which she was a candidate: though that election was the one that brought her to power, in May 1979. I was doing research for a PhD in Cambridge at the time, and in fact had gone to an election rally addressed by her (as well as another addressed by Denis Healey of Labour). After that, I watched from the sidelines in Ireland. Those in UK universities with whom I worked closely had, mostly, the same opinion, which was that she was destroying British industry and subverting British society (an entity she famously claimed not to recognise). My then field of industrial relations was particularly affected. By 1981 the collective bargaining-based, non-law regulated system of workplace relations had been torn apart, and as we know, by the mid-1980s the power of the major trade unions had been largely broken. I wrote stuff about this.
But now, in 2013, would I go back to the practices and assumptions of 1979? Would I vote for a restoration of the old state-run industries and their form of industrial management? No, I don’t think so.
It is notoriously difficult to engage in a dispassionate assessment of a controversial figure at the point of their death. The passage of time is still needed to make sense of what happened. Margaret Thatcher’s memory will, I imagine, always have some degree of controversy associated with it. I still doubt I would vote for her. But I can admire her courage and tenacity, her sense of purpose, her unwillingness to be bullied by the political establishment.
And whatever the merits may have been of her views and policies, she presided over an era in which big questions were asked and significant debates conducted. It was a time in which the currents of history could be felt. We are much more impoverished now.
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