Comment: Margaret Thatcher death intensifies debate over controversial Downing Street reign

Comment by Ross McLean

No other politician has provoked such polarised opinions of hatred and devotion as Margaret Thatcher, whose legacy will continue to divide opinion for generations.

The Iron Lady’s death this week has prompted yet more reflection on her premiership which stimulated economic and social reforms which continue to be felt today.

The neo-conservatism policies of the Thatcher regime secured three election victories as the woman dubbed ‘TINA’ – there is no alternative – remained a Downing Street resident for eleven years.

But with any sustained political term of office, successes are offset by failures, with the Thatcher reign producing undoubted winners as well as multiple casualties.

The daughter of a greengrocer, Thatcher was born in Grantham in 1925 before gaining entry to Oxford University from state school to study chemistry.

She entered the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Finchley in 1959 and reached the Cabinet as education secretary under Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1970.

During her education tenure she acquired the nickname ‘Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher’ after abolishing free school milk a part of budget reductions.

After the Conservative Government lost their grip on power in 1974, Thatcher successfully defeated Heath to become party leader.

Aided by limited opposition, high inflation, economic turmoil, an International Monetary Fund bail-out and the ‘Winter of Discontent’, Thatcher led the Tories to power on May 4, 1979.

And there started the premiership of Britain’s first female PM which sharply divides opinion across the Great British nation and beyond.

Some say she saved the country from terminal decline, others claim she did irreparable damage to public services and the country’s industrial heritage.

During her first term in office, her economic policy centred on a free-market model with her fight against inflation focussing on the control of money supply.

A key thrust of this was a reduction in Government spending and taxes for higher-income individuals.

While economic output was reversed, unemployment rose to post-war highs – which Thatcher described as a necessary medicine the country had to swallow.

In April 1982, Argentine forces – under the command of General Leopoldo Galtieri – invaded the Falkland Islands.

The 74-day conflict cost the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British military personnel.

Maintaining British sovereignty is widely viewed to have contributed to the Conservatives returning to power at the 1983 General Election.

During her second term in office, Thatcher vigorously championed economic liberalisation and fiercely believed in the merit of competition – leading to widespread privatisation of state-owned companies.

The radical programme of privatisation and deregulation saw more than 50 companies – including dozens of utility companies – sold.

Increased productivity was put forward as justification although a huge number of jobs were lost.

The Iron Lady was also committed to reducing the power and influence of trade unions in a bid avoid a repeat of large-scale industrial action witnessed in the 1970s.

There were several strikes launched in response to her strategy of incremental change and desire to make secondary strike action illegal.

The biggest battle saw Thatcher and the National Union of Mineworkers go head-to-head over plans to close 20 state-owned mines and cut 20,000 jobs.

Thatcher ultimately got her way at a cost of £1.5bn to the economy and the loss of thousands of jobs in communities which are still recovering to this day.

Thatcher also took on the European Economic Communityover its budget.

At the time, Britain was the third poorest member but set to become the biggest net contributor because of relatively small farm subsidies.

After arguing Britain did not benefit as much as other members from the Common Agricultural Policy, Thatcher won a rebate after threatening to withhold Britain’s contribution.

Britain continues to receive a rebate to this day.

A third General Election victory was secured in 1987 – despite a reduced a majority – with proposals to make free-market changes to health and education.

Her third and final term was characterised by plans to introduce the ‘poll tax’ – a per capita charge to pay for local government – to replace council tax rates.

The proposal proved deeply unpopular as it was based on the number of people living in a house rather than the home’s value.

This fuelled criticisms Thatcher had no compassion for the poor and poll tax riots in 1990 were viewed as instrumental in her downfall.

A tearful Thatcher –Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister – left Downing Street for the final time in November 1990 after resigning her position.

Over a decade earlier, she quoted St. Francis of Assisi on the steps of Number 10 when she initially won power.

Whether she brought harmony where there was discord, truth where there was error, faith where there was doubt or hope where there was despair is a huge matter for debate.

Thatcher is credited with persuading the British nation to be more ambitious and aspirational with home-ownership and shareholding encouraged.

But hard-working communities felt the full force of harsh economic and social policies which consigned individuals and families to a life of benefits and job queues for generations.

A towering political figure certainly, but one which divides opinion more than any other.

Image courtesy of BBC iPlayer, with thanks.

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