Should Theresa May be like Margaret Thatcher?

The United Kingdom has a new Conservative prime minister and she’s a woman. Cue the inevitable comparisons to the country’s only other female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who resided behind 10 Downing Street’s black door from 1979 until 1990.

The appointment of Theresa May as PM will provide an opportunity for the vociferous and perpetually enraged to vent their respective spleens about Thatcher, a woman they paint as the devil incarnate.

After she died in April 2013, one particularly angry individual launched an online campaign to get the song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ in the top five singles chart.

A Cambridge university history professor would begin every lecture with ‘we all know that Margaret Thatcher was evil, but don’t write that in the exam.’

For those who don’t remember the premiership of the ‘Iron Lady’, it is a good idea to take a look at her achievements.

Margaret Thatcher was neither evil nor diabolical. There is a reason that she romped into victory in the election of 1979 with an 8% swing and a gain of 63 seats. She came to power at the end of a disastrous decade of trade union domination, strikes, high inflation, massive unemployment and general misery.

The previous Conservative government, led by prime minister Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974, introduced a Three Day Week as an emergency measure in response to the crippling combination of coal miners ‘ strikes and a global oil crisis.

Families across the country faced a draconian three hour on, three hour off electricity ration. Even entertainment was rationed, the BBC simply stopped broadcasting at 10.30pm.

With misguided optimism, Heath called an election using the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ Turns out that the answer was ‘trade unions,’ because Labour won.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, who held the office from 1974 to 1976, unsuccessfully tried to get the unions under control.

The unions brought the entire nation, sobbing and broken, to its knees in a series of strikes culminating in the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

During the 1978-79 winter, Britain virtually stopped as stinking mounds of rubbish piled up in London.

Ambulance drivers stopped responding to emergency calls and lorry drivers stopped delivering fuel. Even the gravediggers in Liverpool stopped burying the dead, forcing the local council had to hire a factory in order to store corpses.

All this took place against a freezing background of the coldest winter in 16 years.
But along came Margaret Thatcher, with her distinctive power suits, handbags and a steely determination to fix the country.

The first thing she did was to tame inflation, which had reached the dizzying height of nearly 26.9% in August 1975. By 1983, it had dropped to 4%.

She reduced government spending and cut back the public sector, privatising the industrial landscape. The government had been running everything from car manufacturing, to telecommunications, to airlines, to the oil and gas industries.

She reduced both the power and numbers of the trade unionists- a battle which came to a head in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and which allowed the government to get on with its business.

Thatcher fostered a belief in wealth creation and encouraged freedom of entrepreneurs to grow their companies. She set ordinary people free from state control by introducing the ‘right to buy scheme’ which allowed families who had been living in council houses to buy their own homes.

Considered radical in their day, Thatcher’s economic remedies to heal ‘the sick man of Europe’ have now become part of mainstream thinking. Remember this when you next read an anti- Margaret Thatcher article which compares her to the Wicked Witch of the West.

Bella d'Abrera

Dr Bella d'Abrera is the Director, Foundations of Western Civilisation Programme at the Institute at Public Affairs.

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