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Margaret Thatcher’s legacy has lessons for all conservative politicians, particularly those who walk in her shadow.
This is best illustrated in what she actually achieved and the odds against doing what she did.
As she once said: “I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”
She was first elected to Parliament in 1959 when she was 33, after she had become a mother of twins and married to an older and successful businessman, Denis Thatcher.
He supported her aspirations, which soon saw her as minister of education and the sole woman in Edward Heath’s cabinet that was dominated by ditherers unable to cope with a country riven by a large government deficit, high inflation, low growth and constantly striking unions.
Like other governments of 1970s, both the Tories and Labourites tried to impose wage and price controls without success.
In 1979, she mounted a leadership challenge, backed by a radically different right-wing philosophy of tight monetary policy, deregulation, privatisation and determination to break the power of the unions.
This was five years before the Muldoon government was finally swept away for the same reasons by David Lange, Roger Douglas and others in 1984.
I was in Britain that year and witnessed the Thatcherite revival at first hand. Within a few years, inflation fell from 27% to 2.5%, failing state businesses were sold off or closed and strikes became minimal.
Later, Thatcher cemented her reputation by surviving an IRA bombing, waging a successful conflict to recover the Falklands and helping to win Cold War against communism.
A lot of comment on her death today has emphasised how she divided public opinion in Britain and have given a platform for her many critics.
What isn’t said it what would have happened if Britain – and New Zealand, Australia and the US for that matter – hadn’t adopted the so-called neoliberal reforms.
Nor is it true that Thatcher and Co were oblivious to the human cost. In one vignette of The Iron Lady film, she is seen breaking down over the loss of life in the Falklands and writing to each bereaved family. As far as I can tell, this is a genuine scene based on her autobiography and endorsed by some biographers.
A few scenes later, she is berating her cabinet members, most of whom she still thinks of as weak and vacillating, while pushing ahead with the highly unpopular poll tax that eventually caused her downfall.
Though she won three elections, and lost none, Thatcher’s end came suddenly when faced with a cabinet revolt.
Like most great politicians, she will be remembered for her quotations, which have been collected by The Spectator.
The best on her beliefs is one that explains the context her widely quoted remark that “there is no such thing” as society. What she actually said was:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
I am sure John Key and his cabinet believe this, too. If they can get this message across, surely he would be asked fewer “what’s government doing about…?" questions.