The Iron Lady is as polarising in death as she was in life. While some mourn her passing and hail the late Baroness as a pioneer, others have been holding street parties in celebration of her demise. But, other issues aside, what did Thatcher do for female empowerment? Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher died earlier this week at the age of 87. Here, leading historians discuss her impact on British politics ‑ and the nature of her legacy, and BBC History Magazine brings it to the readers.
“Thatcher’s contribution to Britain’s recovery is sizeable”
“Thatcher was Britain’s most important politician of the postwar era, her only rival for that title being Clement Attlee, creator of the welfare state. Her critics forget or ignore just how parlous was the state of Britain in 1979, and offer no credible policy alternatives about how the country could have been saved from union tyranny, hugely inefficient and loss-making state-owned industries, the stagnation of enterprise.
Her contribution to making Britain once more a viable proposition is almost impossible to overstate, but nor will history ignore the brutality and insensitivity with which she imposed some of her policies, especially in Wales and Scotland. She failed, or never seriously attempted, to reform state institutions unfit for privatisation: health, education, the prisons and police. Most of her great achievements took place in her second term, when she had the confidence and momentum generated first by victory in the Falklands, then by defeating the miners’ union. By her third term, she was displaying a worsening stridency and even irrationality, vividly reflected in stubborn adherence to the poll tax when its unpopularity was manifest, and in her opposition to German reunification. Such behaviour caused her downfall.
Her contribution to Britain’s resurrection seems hard to overstate. From the perspective of the 21st century, we may suggest that while her diplomacy towards Europe in the late 1980s was clumsy and unsuccessful, her fundamental case against European integration and especially against monetary union was absolutely right – more right than some of us saw at the time.
By 1990, however, like all national leaders she had served her turn, and her colleagues were right to remove her. Some of her admirers make a mistake in supposing that she represents an evergreen political exemplar. Just as Churchill was exactly the right national leader for 1940-45 and for no other time, so Thatcher was a giant for the 1980s, and could not have achieved what she did at any other period since 1945.”
Sir Max Hastings is the author of All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939 – 1945 (HarperPress, 2011)
“Thatcher’s conviction may be her abiding legacy”
“Since Thatcher deplored consensus in life, it is appropriate that there is no consensus about her in death. To her admirers, she did good out of the conviction she was right; to her detractors, she did harm for precisely the same reason. In this, she had much in common with Mr Gladstone, and as she recedes into history, that may well turn out to be the most suggestive and instructive comparison.
But there are other parallels, which are also fascinating: like Benjamin Disraeli, Lloyd George and Ramsay Macdonald, she was an outsider, though for different reasons from any of them. But in other ways, there are no comparisons: for example, Thatcher was not only, as has been frequently mentioned, the first woman prime minister: she was also, and this has scarcely been noticed, the first prime minister with a degree in science. Like her gender, that is clearly an aberration; but, like her gender again, will this be – and should it be – a portent?”
David Cannadine is the author of The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Allen Lane, 2013)
“Thatcher’s reign can be compared to that of Henry VIII”
“Our longest serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was the most divisive political figure of the 20th century, passionately loved and hated in equal measure. She presided over a seismic change in British society, pushing it to move from a traditional manufacturing economy to one privileging financial and service industries, allowing speculation, soaring house prices and consumer credit.
The historical comparison is with Henry VIII, who pulled the country through great religious changes, distressing many, delighting others. With newly seized assets, he enriched a new class of men. For unlike, say, the Industrial Revolution or even the Civil War, the 1530s and the 1980s were all about the ruler and her imprint: Lady Thatcher and Henry VIII defined success through how much one altered society. Their changes can never be reversed. When asked what she regarded as her greatest legacy, Thatcher said: ‘New Labour’.
The two most influential post-war politicians were Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. Much that Attlee established, Thatcher attempted to dismantle. We will never forget her domestic policies of privatisation, abolition of the unions, and pushing back the welfare state. But for me, her most important legacy is international. A relationship with America has long been important, but it was Thatcher who defined a strong prime minister as she who allies with the United States, rather than Europe. Ever since her, politicians have tried hard to please the US – perhaps, on occasion, too hard.”
Kate Williams is the author of Young Elizabeth: The Making of Our Queen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)
“Thatcher’s legacy no longer looks durable”
“Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher were the two great change-makers among 20th-century prime ministers. Most of the rest were not change-makers but change-managers: as Harold Macmillan, one of the most skilful of them, famously remarked, what dictated action was ‘events, dear boy, events’.
Attlee and Thatcher had the skill and decisiveness to ride a popular mood and leave behind them a fundamentally different sort of society from the one they inherited. Just as Blair was one of Thatcher’s greatest achievements, so the Conservative government after 1951 under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Home was Attlee’s greatest achievement.
But Attlee was far and away the more successful. He built something genuinely new, while the Thatcher settlement was largely a throwback to the inter-war years. The welfare state – though battered – has survived, even though its principles specifically contradict the Thatcher statement (even in its context) that ‘there is no such thing as society’. The Thatcher template does not now look anything like as durable. London government returned as early as 1999 – Thatcher had left London the only major capital in the world without its own government. Other elements of the Thatcher settlement look as though they may not survive the present crisis.”
Francis Beckett has written biographies of leading political figures including Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan and Gordon Brown
“We must reach a complex and balanced picture of Thatcher’s legacy”
“What should we make of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy? That her impact upon British politics was seismic seems undeniable: but how should historians interpret the ‘Thatcher era’? The polarisation of opinion regarding Thatcher’s premiership reveals how histories are often formed, through the prism of identity and an alluring narrative of ‘them versus us’.
Yet historians must be wary not to fall into the trap of creating a divided past, but must seek to explain the appeal of the far more complex politics of aspiration. The fact that Thatcher won 13.7 million votes in the 1987 general election, compared to 13 million in 1983, or that northern seats such as Darlington or Barrow and Furness, Labour seats in 1979, turned blue in 1983 and 1987, point to a far more nuanced approach.
As someone who was born in 1981, I do not pretend to remember much of the decade: for myself, it is as much a part of history as the 1945 postwar government. But as history, we must not allow politics to blind ourselves from reaching an impartial and balanced picture of the achievements and failings of the Thatcher government.”
Chris Skidmore is a historian and Conservative MP
“Thatcher was a role model for some women, but not a feminist”
“Thatcher will be assured of a place in history as the first female prime minister of Britain. An outsider in terms of both her gender and social class, she had to struggle against many of the prejudices of her day. She first entered parliament in 1959, one of only two dozen women MPs out of over 600. Yet through hard work and discipline, aided by a wealthy, supportive husband, she became in 1979 the first woman to lead a major Western power.
Although the tough, determined Thatcher was an important role model for some aspiring women, she was no feminist. She did not pursue women-friendly policies, nor did she extend a ladder to other able women in her party. A conviction politician with a strong belief that she was right, she liked confrontation and argument rather than a consensual style of leadership. Thatcher enjoyed being surrounded by men, like a queen bee. Her femininity was part of the key to her success. Conservative men, many of whom had been brought up by authoritative women such as nannies or distant mothers, were not used to challenging such a formidable figure.
Thatcher’s belief that tyrannous and oppressive political systems must be fought has been underplayed in assessments of her legacy. In Ronald Reagan she found a friend who shared her hatred of Soviet communism. In the 1980s, she had the insight to make contact with a relatively unknown moderniser in the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, a man with whom she could do business. When Thatcher visited the Soviet Union in 1987, she was mobbed by the public who saw her as upholding those freedoms they so desperately wanted.
Yet her domestic policies at home made her a divisive, polarising figure. Determined to do something about the strikes that had plagued Britain in the 1960s and 70s, she decided to tackle the ‘enemy within’ with a harshness that shocked the British people. She rolled back the state, introduced privatisation of state-owned utilities and supported a free market economy. As unemployment rose to three million, she seemed indifferent to the personal hardships of ordinary people, especially in coal-mining or ship-building communities.
Thatcher changed the political landscape of British politics, transforming even the Labour party. Her rise from a grocer’s shop to death at the Ritz is a story that still divides opinion today.”
June Purvis is the author of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (Routledge, 2002)