Margaret Thatcher was always the candidate from the outside, both because of her background and because of her sex, and so it was an extraordinary event in the middle of the 1970s that what was considered the stuffiest of the political parties chose her and once that had happened, of course it was transformative. It was transformative, not only for the Conservative party but much more importantly for the country.
Her approach to industrial relations was very controversial. The model that the Tories tended to have at that time was that you had to have some sort of compact with the union leaders in order to hold wages down and prevent inflation and she realised that the conflict with the unions that had been going on so badly in the 1970s had to be faced and won, and it was not part of the job of trade unions to try and run the economic policy of the country.
And so she changed the policy completely and of course that was a very controversial thing to do, and it was a very bad time economically anyway because of the government overspending and over-borrowing and too much inflation and recession, and so she introduced very tough measures to change all that and to start with people didn’t believe in them and many of her own colleagues didn’t believe in them, and for the first two and a half years or so there was tremendous scepticism among her colleagues and they would have loved, many of them, to have got rid of her.
But she pulled through. The economy started to change around about early 1982, and a little later in that year that Falklands War took place which of course she won with tremendous élan against all the odds. It was a very, very amazing, sudden victory and one that was really very directly attributable to her and so suddenly you couldn’t argue with he any more in terms of political power. And all the people who had been trying to throw her out the year before in her own party really had to shut up.
The idea that she was America’s poodle is very ridiculous. She was very close to Ronald Reagan and they got on very well but one reason that they did was that it was the sort of frankness and directness that can arise from friendship, and poor Reagan: during the Falklands War, if he wasn’t doing what she felt was required for British interests, her tongue was certainly sharp, though obviously only in private.
The miners’ strike was the culmination of the power of the trade union bosses, and Mrs Thatcher was absolutely determined that the country should not be held to ransom by the extremists in the miners’ union as it had been under Ted Heath more than 10 years before. She prepared the coal stocks so that a long strike could be endured, and the trade union laws made it more favourable to her cause and so did the fact that Arthur Scargill, the leader of the miners, didn’t dare call a ballot of his members and so a third of his members went on working all through the strike and in the latter part more than a third did. That, combined with Mrs Thatcher’s determination, meant that the government outlasted the strike, the strike was defeated and from then on that was the end of union attempts to run the country. And so it was a tremendous victory, a painful victory of course for many aspects of life but also a necessary victory and one which she decisively won.
One reason for her success is that she was constantly underrated by her opponents. They either thought she was too extreme or they thought she was too crude and unsophisticated and they didn’t understand that she was tapping in to a very wide appeal which went way beyond her party, much more than most previous Tory leaders, way beyond her party, much more than most previous Tory leaders, way beyond her party to people of the upper working class and rising middle class, who wanted more freedom and independence and prosperity and were fed up with too much power and because Mrs Thatcher always sold herself as a conviction politician, which was true that she was, I don’t think everybody quite realised that she was a politically very cunning politician, and she knew when to strike and when not to strike and she was extremely good at conveying the message very strongly, so she set herself up in a very clear and defined way which allowed people to understand where she was going and enough people supported it for her to win three times.
I think that she lost support from her Cabinet colleagues over Europe because they were very determined to go in for ever closer union, and she was against it. It’s right that the poll tax was extremely unpopular in the country and that weakened her political position, but the coup against her by colleagues I think was driven by the European issue.
Geoffrey Howe had been such a close colleague in early years and such an important part of the Thatcher revolution that when he resigned and made that speech it was very damning and a lot of her senior colleagues did really want her to go by then. But of course we’ll never really know whether she would have won the next election because she wan’t thrown out by the public but by, as I say, a sort of coup. I once said to her when she was writing her memoirs, what are you going to call your memoirs? And she looked at me, and said ‘Undefeated’, which in fact wasn’t the title in the end but of course she is technically and interestingly correct because she never lost an election and she didn’t even lose the leadership election which caused her to resign, she got more votes than Michael Heseltine in that leadership election but not quite enough to avoid a second ballot and so she decided that the game was up, but she was undefeated and that’s a very important part of the Thatcher legend.
While it was understandable perhaps that people within the party and elsewhere thought she had gone on long enough, the manner of her fall was incredibly damaging for the Conservative party and its repercussions are still visible today, nearly a quarter of a century later.
She’s a figure of myth and I mean by that that everybody for hundreds of years will know if you say ‘she’s a real Margaret Thatcher’, they’ll know what you mean. An -ism has been named after her, her character is very strong, her beliefs are very strong, and this has been an enormous part in the history of freedom in the western world and it is seen and admired and often criticised but nonetheless strongly admired across the world. I think particularly in the age we live in, in which politicians seem a bit frightened and seem just to be worrying about popularity, the idea that somebody actually cares about getting things done and does get a lot of them done is tremendously important, and that is very much part of her legacy.
The first volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher will be published this summer by Allen Lane. This above is an edited version of the interview he gave to Radio 4’s The World at One. You can listen to the full clip here: