Thatcher's legacy for today's politicians

editor's insight

Nevil Gibson

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.

This article is tagged with the following keywords. Find out more about My Tags

Post Comment

19 Comments & Questions

Commenter icon key: Subscriber Verified

Regretfully, JK is not cut from the same cloth as MT.


A good piece, Nevil, but you are much too kind to John Key. if he were Pinocchio I'm afraid his nose would very probably have lengthened quite some distance by now.

Margaret Thatcher was a giant among politicians - particularly because of her integrity, her knowledge of history and her intellect. She was not a clown and a show-off. She did not camp her way along a platform modelling a new uniform. She would never have danced on stage with gays ... blushing when kissed by them ... would never have supported the nonsense of gay "marriage".
She would have known very well that the agenda of war against the family underpins this whole issue ... that the right of a child to a mother and father with that much-needed balance between the sexes utterly trumps the right to a designer child to please those who opt out of living as men and women have for time immemorial.

Margaret Thatcher would not have described her husband as"hot'', nor boasted that other celebrity men might be pleased if she fancied them as "hot". She also respect the democratic process sufficiently to step down when shafted by her own party and would never have cooked up the list votes to get politicians she wanted in Parliament, regardless of the choices of the grassroots members of her own party.

There is no possible comparison between a Margaret Thatcher and a formerly ambitious money trader very probably on his way to further power when the electorate finally wakes up to the fact that we are always ill served when we vote mainly for charisma...


You're forgetting that in MT's time it was barely a decade or so before hand that most men who stepped out in public wore a bowler hat or a hat of some kind and it was just "not right" to be seen in public not wearing one - same for the women / girls.

Time has moved on since then though, eh!

Cassandra - when using minerals-based paints in enclosed spaces, ensure adequate ventilation...


...would never have supported the nonsense of gay "marriage".

Not many 87 year olds would have, but Margaret was actually ahead of the curve on gay rights. She was one of the few Conservative MPs who voted for legalising homosexuality in Britian in 1967.

In any case, your focus on whether she would 'camp her way along a platform' or not is totally missing the point. Thatcher was great not because of her style but primarily because of her policy achievements.


To Cassandra
While I can't possibly agree with your anti-gay marriage and underlying homophobic rhetoric I do agree with your comments about our current and not for much longer than 18 months PM, hopefully, who has surrounded himself with toadies and sycophants.
MT was way ahead of JK in her integrity and feeling for the common man and was not afraid to stand up for a strong Britain. I am sure, given the same situation, JK would just roll over and ask for his tummy to be rubbed or to get Stephen Joyce or Tony Ryall to do his dirty work for him.


I'm trying to think of any bold futuristic changes that JK has made in the style of MT.

Can anyone think of any?


Yes, sadly for NZ, John Key shares none of Thatcher's qualities. A whimpering populist, JK's legacy will have all the substance of a cheshire cat...


How about the partial privatisation of a government utility? Wow, now that's bold futuristic reform - talk about economic leadership!


It is such a typically bullying tactic to simply name-call - such as homophobic, or racist - people who have obviously brought more to deeper thinking on these issues than you have.

These tactics win no respect, and throughout history they have been regarded as ad hominem, and not worthy of debate.

Homophobic is not only wrong. It is an utterly lightweight accusation to throw at individuals concerned, quite rightly, about the recruiting and indoctrinating our children on sexual-related issues - which is now quite openly taking place by gay and lesbian teachers highly active in our schools.

Someone's private choice has no business being turned into a political weapon by those who are essentially attempting to destabilise our society, underpinned by its traditional values, and attacking children by doing so.

If you do not realise gay "marriage" is merely the first step, then you are truly ignorant. And grossly under-informed.


Would love to know who we have in parliament at the moment who would be good enough to fill the breach, that will be vacant, when our man for all reasons and seasons moves on. John Key is more needed by NZ than the other way around. His legacy for a nation left with an inferiority complex after the nine years reign of terror carried out by a Labour Party leader who lacked the common touch to mainstream NZ. Our PM John Key has made NZ a nation once again with self-belief.


While I absolutely agree with your sentiments, I really wish JK had more of Thatcher's gumption. He would make a far better/bigger impact if he cared less about political correctness and yappy left-wingers; focusing more on getting the right policies in place so that NZ doesn't continue to suffer at the hands of bludging citizens who expect everything for nothing.


Totally agree, John needs to just push ahead, show his teeth and go for it.

Makes me ill to see what NZ would be like if the 84 reforms had not happened, even though lots of lefties blame that time and direction for all sorts of problems.


Interesting in the UK this very moment there is a huge campaign, just been launched by unions and lefties, to denigrate Margaret Thatcher and erase all her good works, as well as her memory. The plan is to purge her from the minds of the nation of Britain as soon as possible. Seems she saved the nation when it was on its knees, yet that has not been good enough for the unions and Labour Party followers.


I lived through Thatcherism in the UK. The only thing I could say for her is that she was a politician of conviction who stood firmly on her principles and fought hard for them. I disagreed with most of what she did, and left the UK at least partly because of the society she created there; but I have always admired her resolute spirit.


True, I guess self-reliance is hard for some people.


It is difficult to know how much Thatcher was a life-long conviction market liberal politician. From the start of her career in the 1950s she was known for hard-line free enterprise and cold war speeches but most MPs believed it was just rhetoric and careerism. During the time she was PM the driving force for the market reforms were Chancellors Howe and Lawson, who pressed many of the changes on her and would have gone much further into the third rail areas of health, welfare and policing where Osborne is making very unpopular changes today.
In many ways, Thatcher was a product of her time in that like most of the politicians then she was a product of the meritocracy that gave the lower middle class and offsprings of skilled working class a chance at Oxford - Jenkins, Healy, Heath, etc.
She woud not have regarded her victories as a blow for feminism. She always wanted to be the only woman in cabinet and restore traditiional values. She got qualifications at the bar and became a significant tax laywer because she had a rich husband and 24-hour child care.
What Thatcher had was cunning, nerve, ego. She saw even while she was at Oxford that the gap in politics would be for a Tory woman. The Labour Party had too many brilliant aspirant women even in 1946 - eg, Williams and Castle. She had the nerve to challenge to be opposition Leader in 1975. She won, even though everybody from Eton and Harrow voted against her except Neve, and it was the same with Churchill in 1940.


What a great pity our JK continues to seek popularity instead of bold policy change.
An immediate end to Maori grievance payouts, competition for ACC, winding back and eliminating WFF over say a three-year period, a flat and simple tax structure, etc.
Between MMP and JK New Zealand is stuck in a go-slow.


I support this article.

I do get sick of people asking"what will the govt do about this problem".

I real question is, what will I do about it?


"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."

I also got all misty eyed with scene in The Iron Lady film where Mrs T was helping her young children with their homework in the kitchen, Carol with her maths, Mark with his gun running...


Post New comment or question

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

NZ Market Snapshot


Sym Price Change
USD 0.7740 -0.0003 -0.04%
AUD 0.9511 0.0005 0.05%
EUR 0.6324 -0.0002 -0.03%
GBP 0.4954 0.0001 0.02%
HKD 6.0039 0.0001 0.00%
JPY 92.5100 -0.0050 -0.01%


Commodity Price Change Time
Gold Index 1195.4 -2.890 2014-12-19T00:
Oil Brent 61.4 1.580 2014-12-19T00:
Oil Nymex 57.1 2.910 2014-12-19T00:
Silver Index 16.0 0.096 2014-12-19T00:


Symbol Open High Last %
NZX 50 5518.5 5545.0 5539.3 -0.21%
NASDAQ 4752.6 4782.1 4748.4 0.36%
DAX 9901.3 9901.3 9811.1 -0.25%
DJI 17778.0 17874.0 17778.2 0.15%
FTSE 6466.0 6566.9 6466.0 1.23%
HKSE 23158.3 23189.6 22832.2 1.25%
NI225 17511.0 17621.4 17210.0 2.39%