Rt Hon David Davis is the Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden
Great national leaders are created by three things: circumstance, conviction, and courage. It is the national circumstances that define the need for greatness, their personal convictions that give the answers to the nation's problems, and their individual courage that delivers the actions demanded by those convictions.
By any measure Margaret Thatcher was a great national leader, probably the greatest peacetime leader in modern times.
The circumstances that brought her to lead our country were dire. We were not so much bankrupt as economically broken, with our industries growing less and less competitive and the nation less and less able to pay its way. Worse, our economic bankruptcy was more than matched by the intellectual bankruptcy of a British establishment that had given up the fight.
We have forgotten today how the received wisdom of the 1970s was that the government's job was to manage decline, and we would be astonished by the rose-tinted view taken of left-wing dictatorships by the intelligentsia of the day. The march of history was against us.
That, at least was the view of the Establishment, including many in the Conservative Party.
Margaret Thatcher fractured that cosy consensus. It is said that she did not "do" consensus. Indeed the last words she said to me whilst she was still Prime Minister were "Consensus is only worthwhile if it is the right consensus."
But it was simply not possible to solve the problems our country faced without controversial action. It was to her credit that she had the courage to face the risks and unpopularity necessary to take on the tasks that politicians had shirked in the decades before her. Which is why she is still a controversial figure today.
The view of Margaret Thatcher as a “divisive” figure is, however, largely confined to these shores. Ask about our first female Prime Minister in Warsaw, Budapest, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, and you will be met with a uniform paean of praise for the woman they know helped to defeat communism, and to set them free.
At a time when many in the West supported détente with the Soviet Union, Thatcher stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Reagan and spoke up for freedom. She also recognised, sooner than her American counterpart, that Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader they could reason with, an attitude which saw improved US-Soviet relations and made the world a safer place. It was, in Thatcher’s words, Ronald Reagan who “had a higher claim than any other leader to have won the Cold War for liberty…without a shot being fired”. He only achieved it, however, with the Grantham-born grocer’s daughter at his side.
Her transformation of Britain was no less remarkable.
In the 1970s the British economy was on its knees. Striking public sector workers held the government to ransom with double digit pay rise demands. Rubbish rotted in the streets. The dead lay unburied. Rampant inflation hacked away at real wages, destroyed savings and lowered living standards. An 83% top rate of income tax drove away those with ambition, capital and talent. At its lowest ebb Britain, not so many years earlier the world’s greatest imperial power, had to trudge cap in hand to the IMF for a bailout.
In 1979, Mrs Thatcher set about healing the sick man of Europe. Out went reckless public spending, secondary action and sky high taxes. In came fiscal discipline, trade union reform and cuts in both the top and basic tax rates.
Almost immediately, Margaret Thatcher’s government gave council tenants the right to buy their homes. This was a shining example of a Conservative policy which transformed the lives of some of the least affluent in society. It helped two million Britons become homeowners for the first time. It was a policy for the many, not the few.
Thatcher realised that socialist centralisation had failed, and set about rolling back the frontiers of the state. The British government’s privatisation program raised billions of pounds and gave millions of ordinary voters the chance to own shares. Gas and steel, railways and waterways were sold to private investors. This revolutionary idea – a cornerstone of Mrs Thatcher’s belief in the decentralisation of power – would soon be copied by governments throughout the developed world. Whatever your view of the policies, there is no denying that, by the time Mrs Thatcher was forced out in 1990, nobody was calling Britain the “sick man” anymore.
Of course, it was not just economic battles that Thatcher fought and won. In 1982, when news reached Number 10 that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, few in Downing Street could even point to them on a map. The Navy was unprepared, its ships being gradually sold off. Even as some of her colleagues warned against trying to retake the islands, Mrs Thatcher refused to abandon them to Argentine tyranny. A 25,000 strong task force headed south within days.
It was a huge gamble politically, but a no-brainer for a leader who always put the national interest first. I suspect Margaret was delighted when the Falkland Islanders held the recent referendum on their future last month. I am sure that in Port Stanley, they know she is the reason that future is theirs to decide.
They say you can judge someone by their friends. Personally I think you can judge someone by their enemies too. Thatcher counted General Galtieri, the old guard of the Soviet Union and Arthur Scargill among her enemies. I can think of no higher compliment.
Margaret Thatcher’s courage, conviction and clarity of vision (she famously told candidates they should be able to explain Conservative policies in less than a minute) were popular with voters. In 1983 they returned her to Number 10 for another four years with a thumping majority, a full one hundred seats larger than the one she won in 1979. It was the most decisive general election result in almost four decades. In Scotland, now almost a no go area for Conservatives in general elections, the Conservatives won twenty-one seats. Not bad for a divisive leader.
Millions of people in Britain and around the world owe Thatcher a debt of gratitude for their freedom and their quality of life, both of which were made possible by her courageous commitment to the principles of individual freedom and responsibility. Her passing is a sad moment for Conservatives, for Britain, and for all those who share her timeless principles.
So how should we remember Margaret Thatcher?
As a leader, she could undoubtedly be difficult to work with. Mrs Thatcher once said “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, so long as they do what I say.” A comment clearly made in jest, but clearly one some of her ministers believed contained more than a kernel of truth. But it was actually one of her tests of ministers, to ferociously cross examine them and challenge their ideas to see how they reacted. Only the ones that fought back got promoted.
However, I will remember Margaret as the Prime Minister who became leader when Britain was over-regulated, over-taxed and underpowered, but who left office having transformed our country – and millions of lives – for the better. Through sheer force of conviction she turned recession into expansion; chaos into order; and managed decline into meteoric rise. The Iron Lady was not just a conviction politician; she was a once in a several-generations politician. Her legacy lives on, but she will be greatly missed.