John Whittingdale has been an MP since 1992 and worked as Margaret Thatcher's political secretary in Downing Street for the final three years of her premiership. On the thirtieth anniversary of her becoming Prime Minister, he recalls her political courage and immense achievements during eleven years in power. During the course of today we will then be posting a number of shorter Platform pieces in which a variety of political figures will share their memories of the 1979 general election.
At the Party Conference in Birmingham last year, the audience at the Guardian debate voted Margaret Thatcher as the greatest Tory hero by a huge margin. My task in proposing her in the debate against Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and Edmund Burke was an easy one. The outcome was never in doubt.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s detractors recognise her extraordinary achievement – in becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister, in winning three elections in a row, and in serving longer than any other Prime Minister of the 20th Century. Yet when she became leader of the Party in 1975, many Conservatives believed that it was an aberration that would be soon put right – a view that continued for several more years after she won the General Election in 1979. Very few foresaw the remarkable change that she would bring about, not just in Britain but across the globe.
Britain thirty years ago was viewed with mockery and scorn by the rest of the world. Much of British industry was overmanned, uncompetitive and loss-making. Inflation had reached 26% and the economy only kept going as a result of loans from the IMF. There was an impression that not just management had handed power over to the trade unions but that the Government itself took its orders from the TUC.
Not unlike today, the new Conservative Government had to take painful decisions. The policies necessary to restore Britain’s economic strength also led to widespread strikes, unemployment rising to over three million and riots in the inner cities. It took huge political courage to press ahead and to ignore the clamour, within the Party as well as outside it, for the Government to make a U-turn.
The changes to Britain that Margaret Thatcher’s Government brought about were immense and permanent. The introduction of the Right to Buy in 1979 led to the biggest single transfer of wealth that any Government has brought about leading to 1.5 million council house tenants becoming home-owners for the first time. Privatisation – barely mentioned in the 1979 manifesto – was introduced first in state-owned industries such as steel, cars and shipbuilding and then in utilities such as telecoms, gas and water. Each of these policies was fiercely opposed. Yet it is now unthinkable that any Government would reverse them and they have been emulated around the world.
It was not just political courage that Margaret Thatcher displayed but personal courage too. Just two weeks before she became Prime Minister, her closest adviser – Airey Neave – was murdered by the IRA. During her time as Prime Minister, her life was under constant threat from terrorists who succeeded in killing one of her greatest friends, Ian Gow, and very nearly killed her in the Brighton bomb. Yet she would never give in to blackmail or intimidation – even when ten convicted IRA and INLA terrorists starved themselves to death in the Maze prison.
Margaret Thatcher’s passionate belief in individual liberty also underlay her attitude to foreign policy. When, three years after she was first elected Prime Minister, Argentina invaded the Falklands, she was never in any doubt that the aggression must not be allowed to succeed. Yet few shared her resolve to fight for the liberation of the islands if that was what was required. Even when the taskforce was on its way to the South Atlantic, many in the Foreign Office and US State Department were convinced that this was simply a negotiating ploy.
The Falklands War could easily have gone wrong. It cost the lives of 255 British soldiers. It is hard to believe that anyone else would have had the resolve to carry it through. Yet the victory did not just restore the freedom of the Falkland Islanders, it sent a message to the world that henceforward liberty and democracy would be defended.
Eight years later, the same principles were at stake when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Margaret Thatcher was in the United States at the time and urged President Bush to make it clear that Kuwait would be liberated by force if Iraq did not withdraw. Many, including the then Secretary of State, believe that the American response would not have been as strong if she had not be there to urge: “Don’t go wobbly on me now George”.
Her ability to influence George Bush came about from the extraordinarily close alliance and friendship that she had formed with his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. The political views of both were founded on a belief in individual freedom and hostility to authoritarian government. Both agreed that the greatest threat to the world was from the Communist empire of the Soviet Union and they both resolved to defeat it. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow US cruise missiles to be based in Britain, to acquire the Trident missile and to support the American Star Wars programme was critical.
The recognition by the Soviets that they could never win an arms race led to the slow willingness to change that was first articulated by President Gorbachev – the leader who Margaret Thatcher first recognised as one with whom the West could do business. It is hardly surprising therefore that in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Margaret Thatcher is still praised for the role that she played in bringing about their liberty. Their people recognise that Margaret Thatcher did not just change Britain immeasurably for the better, she played the leading role in changing the world.
I was fortunate enough to serve as Political Secretary to Margaret Thatcher for the last three years she was Prime Minister. Even though they were the years leading up to her eventual defeat at the hands of her own Party, I loved every moment. Many times I witnessed her personal kindness, her wit and the loyalty which she gave to her staff and which she in turn inspired in them. It was and remains a privilege to know her.
Now the Conservative Party has to prepare for Government once again and the challenges facing it will be equally great as they were in 1979. We shall need both courage and conviction but the task will be made easier by the knowledge that we have Margaret Thatcher’s example to follow.