|David Young on Margaret Thatcher's greatest legacy – the transformation of the British economy from the worst to the best in Europe.
Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to business and enterprise was moulded and shaped by two men, her father and her husband. Alfred Roberts was a successful small businessman who was fascinated by local politics. She grew up in a home where the problems and rewards of enterprise were everyday conversation coupled with the need to bring these principles, of thrift, efficiency and the avoidance of waste, into local government
When she married Denis, she married a successful businessman, an entrepreneur whose success enabled her to embark on her political career. He had inherited a family business, built it up and sold out to a major oil company, after which he spent some decades as a director of numerous companies.
These two influences were the foundation of her belief that government could not run business and her unshakeable determination not to expand the public sector. In 1981, when Ian MacGregor was grappling with a moribund British Steel and proposed buying Kaiser Steel in the US, she was resolute in forbidding any expansion of the still nationalised industry, against the wishes of many of her colleagues. She knew that many a short-term expansion would turn into a permanent investment in time.
A few years later, I was a Minister without Portfolio, grappling with youth unemployment. I held my usual weekly meeting on her return from a summit with Ronald Reagan. ‘The President tells me that excessive regulation kills enterprise and slows down the economy’, were her first words as I entered her office. On my enthusiastic endorsement she asked me to set up a Cabinet sub-committee concerned with deregulation. She was the first prime minister to accept that there was even a problem, let alone wanted to deal with it.
Once aware of the problem she did not let it go. I was a member of a group she chaired in which John Sainsbury and members of the construction industry met with ministers to try to reduce planning delays. While she was very conscious of the democratic basis of town planning, she was intolerant of the excessive delays inherent in the system and always led from the front, often to the consternation of some of her ministers.
She will, above all, be identified with privatisation. This was not a fully worked-out policy in 1979 and in many ways crept up on her. The difficult period was in the early 1980s, when the first sales took place, often against the advice of her ministers and her predecessors, most notably Harold Macmillan. Her continual encouragement for the process, particularly in the difficult early days, was crucial, and after the success of British Gas, the first major sale to the general public, the process was secure and she could afford to relax.
Although she was occasionally rather sceptical about big business, and was by nature a supporter of small enterprises, her door was always open to any chairman or CEO of any FTSE 100 company, but woe betide anyone who wasted her time or who came with an unnecessary whinge.
In contrast, many years later I was asked by a German business figure to go with him to see Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The businessman, the chairman of one of the biggest companies in Germany, had been refused an audience with Kohl, unless I came along to discuss Britain’s attitude to the euro.
That would never have happened here during the 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher realised that the duty of government was, above all else, to create the right climate for the economy. In this regard she trusted the advice of business people as much as officials. She had a small number of businessmen – the Lords Hanson, King and Laing among others – whom she would occasionally consult for a reality check; but often fell back on Denis.
Some years ago, on the last occasion I had a real talk with her, she bemoaned what she called the conversion of the Labour Party and its adoption of our economic principles. It was, I told her, her great legacy to the nation and the transformation of our economy from the worst to the best in Europe. No prime minister could have given more.