I first came to London in May 1979 on a student exchange programme from India. It was election time. The Conservative Party’s election poster, with a slogan that said “Labour isn’t working” was found at many places. It was a clever pun; unemployment was high, and the Labour Party had been in power. Margaret Thatcher won that election, but the mood in the country was not jubilant. She came promising to create jobs, revive the economy, and usher in prosperity by following the simple old rules of balancing books, and running the economy like a prudent grocer’s daughter that she was. Live within your means, pay back what you have borrowed, save, invest wisely. Don’t depend on the state, depend on your own thrift, drive, and enterprise. The real problem with socialism? Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.
Socialists never liked that. I remember an old interview of hers on Doordarshan in India, when Abu Abraham, the left-leaning cartoonist and columnist interviewed Thatcher. Abu had been a cartoonist in Britain, and his work had appeared in several left-of-centre publications, including The Guardian. Abu challenged Thatcher by citing Shirley Williams, who had been a minister in the previous Labour Government. “But she lost her seat, didn’t she?” Thatcher icily reminded Abu, stressing that her ideas—unpalatable though they might be for Abu—had found favour in Britain.
Thatcher was convinced she knew what Britain needed. The state commanded the economy, and unions were powerful. She privatized assets the state had no business owning. But she did that not by giving away assets to well-connected businesses, but by making people shareholders, and by encouraging people to buy their council homes.
The Guardian has blamed her for promoting a cult of selfishness, and the statement—there is no such thing as a society—has been repeated often on television today. But it is one of her most misunderstood remarks. She actually said: “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.”
She was urging people to believe in themselves, to become resilient and self-reliant, and not rely on the faceless state.
Guided by economist Alan Walters and working alongside allies like William Whitelaw, Cecil Parkinson, and Keith Joseph, Thatcher set about dismantling the state’s dominance of the British economy, which had to regain flexibility and nimbleness if it was to compete worldwide. Her policies strengthened Britain’s financial sector even as they hollowed out some of Britain’s industrial base, and forced British business to become more entrepreneurial. Memorably, she faced down Arthur Scargill’s militant trade union. Her critics blame her for destroying mining communities. But Scargill, too, bears a large share of that blame. And whether Britain should have continued using taxpayers’ money to prop up inefficient industries like coal mining is an open question.
Her distaste for statist economics extended to how she saw such politics as well. In foreign policy, her instincts were right. She invited Mikhail Gorbachev to London before he became the Soviet leader, and astutely, in him she saw someone she—and the West—could do business with. She cheered President Ronald Reagan who urged Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, and she saw to it that it was brought down by East Germans, cheered by their western cousins; she strengthened President George Bush’s resolve to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
More importantly, Thatcher trusted her instincts and took decisions based on her deeply-held belief in individual freedom. She saw dissent as a legitimate part of a robust democracy. Salman Rushdie called her Margaret Torture in The Satanic Verses and she wasn’t amused. But when Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on him, seeking Rushdie’s death, she made the right call: she provided Rushdie with round-the-clock protection and broke off what remained of Britain’s ties with Iran, even when Muslims in Bradford and elsewhere were burning Rushdie’s novel, and some politicians and writers were criticizing Rushdie for writing a novel that offended Muslims. Rushdie paid tribute to her yesterday, calling hers “a great life”.
When the Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri sent his troops to take over Falkland Islands, she sent the Royal Navy and Air Force to fight back not as an imperial misadventure, but because the people who lived on those islands wanted to remain British. A recent referendum showed that the islanders’ mood hasn’t changed, Argentine tantrums notwithstanding. “Rejoice,” she said, when triumphant soldiers returned home.
Her successor John Major won an election against all odds, and both the Labour Prime Ministers that followed—Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—scarcely deviated from certain basic premises of her policies. Indeed, Labour’s election manifesto in 1983 was described as the longest suicide note in history, so hopelessly out of touch was it with what the voters wanted. Labour became electable only after it convinced the City, as the financial district is called, that it would not be a reckless tax-and-spend party.
Towards the end of her innings, she trusted few of her colleagues, and grew more stubborn. Her pragmatic streak deserted her. This lady is not for turning, she had said. That firm commitment had its place at a particular time, but it sounded churlish when she ignored hollowed out communities, with schools deprived of funds and hospitals short of nurses.
To be sure, she made many Britons angry. As I write this, people too young to have lived under Thatcher’s eleven-year-rule, are celebrating her death in Brixton in South London, which was torn apart by rioting in 1981 and the wounds haven’t healed. They blame her for Britain’s miseries, thinking that Britain before Thatcher was a land of milk and honey. Those who supported unions, believed in the welfare state, wanted the public sector to dominate the economy, distrusted private business, saw profit as a dirty word, and wanted the state to provide basic services, including free healthcare, free education even at university-level, would never forgive her, for they believe she unmade the Britain they had dreamt of building. And yet, had Britain clung to those policies, it would have become more impoverished.