Forty years ago, the first Thursday in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Forty years on, Margaret Thatcher retains her capacity to polarise opinion. Never someone to whom people could be indifferent, Britain’s first female premier was either loved or hated.
Margaret Thatcher was a revolutionary. Her revolution was not amongst the middle classes; any Tory leader might have commanded those votes. Margaret Thatcher’s success was to garner the votes of millions of working-class people, particularly around London and the south-east. “Essex man,” the brash, Sun-reading, proletarian, was at the backbone of the Thatcherite revolution.
Growing up on tales of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan, there seemed much to be cherished in the post-war consensus that was accepted by the Conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s. The consensus sought a society where there would be care for everyone. It was a mood that arose from the trauma of war and the misery of the 1930s. The English, for it was they who would send Margaret Thatcher Downing Street in 1979, had been determined that they were never going back to the old ways.
Margaret Thatcher was ideologically opposed to that post-war consensus, declaring to Woman’s Own magazine in 1987,
‘I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.’
Being told to look after oneself seems reasonable to those who could do so, particularly if that self-dependence came with extra cash in one’s pocket. It was a message that struck a chord with many working class electors who had been heavily burdened by the taxation policies of the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments; it was a message that won elections for the Conservatives in 1979 and 1987 (the Falklands War enabling Thatcher to overcome the unpopularity of 1981 and triumph in the 1983 election). But it was also a message that absolved people of responsibility for others, it removed their responsibility to contribute to those things in society that could not be provided by the market.
Margaret Thatcher’s mistake, (like the mistake of Labour governments that allowed particular trade unions to shape government policy to favour their own members), was to underestimate self-interest. People who looked after themselves were not inclined to look after their neighbour. The neo-liberalism of her economic policies was reflected in a laissez-faire attitude to society and many people who had not the capacity to cope were abandoned.
Margaret Thatcher’s principle was that one should pay for what one wanted. It is a principle that might be applied at a societal level, one gets the sort of society for which one is prepared to pay. Building a consensus-based, inclusive society can only come if there is taxation to pay for it. As long as that principle is rejected, Mrs Thatcher has won the argument.