In 1879, the Grand Old Man of British government, W.E. Gladstone, remarked that ‘good sense and good faith’ were the two characteristics that the British constitution demanded of its prime ministers. For Mrs Thatcher, who left Downing Street for the last time twenty-eight years ago today, conviction and persistence were at the heart of her mission. To Charles Powell, her long-serving Private Secretary, Thatcher was ‘Leninist’ in her ‘absolute determination’ and her working style which was centred on the maintenance of ‘a vanguard which is right’. Thatcher serves as a remarkable, if not unique, example of the conviction-driven approach to the premiership.
In his 1976 autobiography, the distinctly un-Thatcherite Lord Home, the distinguished former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, sought to present a ‘glimpse of perfection’ of the ideal Prime Minister. His blueprint for political leadership called for someone with ‘the clarity of a Churchill, combined with the economy of words of an Attlee, and the efficiency of a John Anderson’. Whilst an Attleean economy of words was never Thatcher’s forte, clarity and efficiency were important components of her governing style.
Although her now infamous remark that a prime minister should not be a ‘weak, floppy thing in the chair’ has come to overshadow her more meaningful remarks on the premiership, it is clear that Thatcher believed deeply that, as she told Brian Walden in the wake of Nigel Lawson’s resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘strong government’ should conduct its affairs by allowing ministers to have ‘very good arguments’ about policy. A very definite person with an entrenched set of guiding principles, Thatcher had a tendency to ride roughshod over Cabinet colleagues who disagreed with the core essentials of her views.
So, besides from the impression of a dominant premiership left on the body politic, what, 28 years on, is left of Thatcher in British political life?
Leaving aside the shape of the modern economy — the balance of finance to manufacturing, the privatisation programme that still generates such division, the income inequality and low-tax economy — the constitutional state of the kingdom hosts the most potent remnants of Thatcher.
Since the process of devolution was enacted in the late 1990s, the apparatus of the kingdom has at its core been that of Tony Blair’s government. Despite some tweaking by David Cameron’s government after the 2014 Scottish referendum, the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as well as the re-established Northern Ireland Assembly, are the products of that period. It is the internal dynamics of the country — the balance between urban and rural and between Westminster and the regions — that is one of the most important legacies of the Thatcher period.
In Thatcher’s case, the 1981 inner city riots, the 1984 miners strike or the 1989-90 poll tax riots, to name just three, are clear evidence of her own failure to deliver any sense of national harmony.
Indeed, in Liverpool after the 1981 disturbances, it was Michael Heseltine, not Margaret Thatcher, who advocated a ministerial presence for the city to coordinate a radical response to the problem. Whilst Thatcher’s support for Heseltine’s work and her agreement to his dedication to Liverpool have frequently been under-appreciated, it is Heseltine’s report to the Cabinet, It Took a Riot, that demonstrates the most cohesive approach to the problem nationwide.
It Took a Riot attributed the city’s decline to a potent combination of bad industrial relations, centralisation of corporate decision-making, crumbling infrastructure, a lack of civic leadership and local authorities without the funds or power to reverse the decay. In addition to asking for a substantial injection of new funds, Heseltine’s report sought to persuade the Cabinet of the need to streamline local government, provide greater support for small businesses and of the desirability of public and private sector partnership to promote the development of service industries and secure greater employment opportunities for local people.
Whilst at its most active from 1981 to when Heseltine moved to the Ministry of Defence in 1983, this debate continued throughout the Cameron and into the May governments. The Cameron-Osborne agenda for devolution was fostered, shaped and implemented by the now Lord Heseltine.
In this sense, one could argue that whilst the problem eating away at the threads that bind the kingdom was of the monetarist Thatcher’s creation, the solution that was pursued by both Blair and Cameron was Heseltine's creation.
On Europe, the defining question of the end of her premiership and of today’s beleaguered government, her legacy is even more hotly contested and even more difficult to unravel.
Writing on the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership, the historian Robert Saunders writes that ‘depending on one’s perspective, the EEC could be a bulwark against communism, a site of religious awakening, the spawn of empire or a vehicle for women’s rights’. He concludes that responses to this political Rorschach test ranged ‘from nightmare to nirvana’. Despite the recent dominance of the ‘nightmare’ school, some British politicians have prided themselves on their ‘Europeanism’: Edward Heath, Roy Jenkins and Tony Blair to name a few.
Yet unlike Heath and Jenkins, it is Thatcher who is frequently invoked in Brexit debates. For Remainers as the creator of the Single Market. For Brexiteers as the ‘No, No, No’ Thatcher of the Bruges Speech and beyond.
However, perhaps what today’s Europe-induced turmoil points to most of all is that on this now foundational question, we should turn to the long-neglected Heath for the more concrete legacy. For in taking Britain into the then EEC, it is his legacy and political spirit, not Mrs Thatcher’s, which really dominates British politics on the 28th anniversary of her departure from office.