Margaret Thatcher: Great Prime Minister?

On the anniversary of the day she left Downing Street for the final time, we ask: was the Iron Lady actually one of our greatest ever leaders?

Great Political Mistakes

YES SHE WAS

Margaret Thatcher is hated by millions of Britons. But those millions of Britons are wrong, misled by the ugly realities of the 1980s, and the tough decisions which Thatcher had to make in order to save the country from economic extinction.

Take the whole traumatic issue of the mine closures, and the epic strikes which rocked the country. This is often Exhibit A in the case against Thatcher: an example of her callous, uber-capitalist indifference to working class communities. But that's only if you ignore how broken the coal industry was at the time.

'The Iron Lady' Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

'The Iron Lady' Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Incurring huge losses, British coal was being artificially propped up by subsidies and emergency measures. Thatcher laid out the dire predicament in a speech at the time, saying: "You, the tax-payer, last year paid £1.3 billion to the coal industry to meet its losses... if everyone wants to be kept, who is there to do the keeping? Who is to keep the kept?"

Arthur Scargill, the leader of the striking miners, clearly expected to be "kept" forever. Asked by a Parliamentary committee about what level of loss a mine should be allowed to operate at before meriting closure, he replied: "As far as I can see, the loss is without limits."

This, in the words of one of Thatcher's advisors, was the "economics of the madhouse". A sense of gross entitlement which would have bankrupted the country if Thatcher didn't take decisive action against the whole of the mining industry.

As journalist John Phelan says, "She did not swoop in and kill perfectly good industries out of spite. Thatcher just switched off the increasingly costly life support which had kept these zombie industries going." After the "Winter of Discontent" of the late 70s, which saw unions bringing the nation to a standstill, Thatcher's pragmatic, no-nonsense approach was what Britain needed.

Thatcher just switched off the increasingly costly life support which had kept these zombie industries going.

Then there was her decisive action during the Falklands conflict against Argentina. The war aroused controversy over the years, but the basic fact of the matter is that a cruel military dictatorship had invaded British territory with impunity. This was a regime notorious for brutal human rights abuses, versus a democratic nation. Incredibly, many of Thatcher's own advisors told her to just let Argentina have the Falklands.

Instead, showing her usual strength and leadership, Thatcher chose to liberate the islands. The war short, sharp and successful. Yes, there were casualties, but this was no endless quagmire. It was a clear, decisive victory for Britain.

Thatcher also deserves credits for what she represented. Self-reliance, self-determination, and ambition. She provided all the energy which Britain badly needed after the stagnant 1970s. And, lest we forget, she played a vital role in ending the Cold War, by acting as a go-between for President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev.

Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, sums it up well: "She was the UK's first female prime minister when sexism was still pretty much a public norm, she oversaw a painful but necessary restructuring of the British economy, she helped hasten the end of Argentina's military dictatorship... Thatcher has to be up there in any list of the greats."

NO SHE WASN'T

"The last Conservative government was destroyed by the miners' strike. We'll have another and we'll win." This, according to her biographer, is what Margaret Thatcher declared shortly after taking office, and she was true to her word. You see, Thatcher wasn't driven by economics and pragmatism. She was on a vengeful warpath, determined to hit back at the mining communities after their union victories in the 1970s.

Thatcher had a rampant, ideological contempt for the miners, their families, their worlds. Her own words say it all. She called the miners "the enemy within", and compared them to her fascist foes in the Falklands conflict. And even if you DO accept the economic argument for closing the mines, Thatcher's cold, remorseless vendetta against the people meant she didn't put any provisions in place to aid the communities after so many jobs were eliminated.

Instead, Britain bore witness to military-style policing, skirmishes that resembled scenes from medieval warfare, and thousands of arrests and injuries. Sleazy tactics were also used to defeat the working men and women. Seamus Milne, author of The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners, writers that "under the prime minister's guidance, MI5, police Special Branch, GCHQ and the NSA were mobilised not only to spy on the [miners] on an industrial scale, but to employ agents provocateurs at the highest level of the union, dirty tricks, slush funds, false allegations, forgeries, phoney cash deposits and multiple secretly sponsored legal actions to break the defence of the mining communities."

Her policies had devastating and long lasting effects

Ultimately, as Dr Toby S. James, editor of British Conservative Leaders, puts it: "Her policies had devastating and long lasting effects on many communities and industries. Many never recovered to this day."

Her other shortcomings were numerous. This, after all, was the leader who brought in Section 28, a huge blow to the cause of LGBT rights in this country, and her career-killing blunder over the Poll Tax, which triggered violent riots. But, ultimately, her reckless, ideological actions which broke the back of so many towns and villages in Britain are enough to leave her reputation in tatters.