|My first reaction to hearing the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death was sadness, followed by relief that she would not have to suffer any longer. But undoubtedly it was the ending of an era.
The words “Margaret Thatcher” and “courage” will always be synonymous. And for her, the word “impossible” barely existed. A French general, being complimented on his courage, once replied that he was careful to use it only when it was absolutely necessary. Mrs Thatcher’s courage was there all the time. She was the most courageous person I ever met in politics.
This is not to deny her acute political instincts, but in approaching any problem she would first ask herself: what is the right thing to do? Then: is it in accordance with my principles?
I remember standing next to her at a Conservative function, before she became prime minister, as she was about to speak. She turned to me and said: “Our job is to change people’s attitudes in this country.” I thought at the time that was almost impossible for any government. But she achieved just that. She changed the way people thought about the economy, about work, and about private enterprise. Although she had great respect for Harold Macmillan, in whose government she’d served, Mrs Thatcher regarded his pursuit of the middle way as the pursuit of some chimera – always pulling one to the Left.
It is difficult to recall now, or indeed imagine, the chaos and deep economic crisis that Britain was in when she became prime minister. The country was notorious for its strikes and was known as “the sick man of Europe”. Inflation was in double figures. The economy was stagnant and the public finances and borrowing were out of control. So her first priority, and that of Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, was to reduce borrowing, which demanded deep cuts in public expenditure. Tax cuts, though she strongly believed in them, had to wait.
Red tape and bureaucratic control – like those on prices and incomes, and on foreign exchange – were swept away. Many people said this would lead to economic chaos, but it didn’t. And then there was the threatening spectre of hyperinflation, which in Mrs Thatcher’s view undermined confidence, robbed savers and produced instability. At that time, the Bank of England was not independent, and interest rate decisions had to be made by the government. She and Geoffrey Howe did not shrink from raising interest rates to sky-scraping levels to bring inflation under control.
Much of the intellectual groundwork for her economic policies, including the reform of industrial relations, had been done by her friend and mentor Keith Joseph. She often remarked: “Without him I would have achieved nothing.”
But it was her handling of the Falklands war and the miners’ strike that illustrated to the nation her remarkable determination and tactical skill. Many people, including most of the chiefs of staff, thought the Falklands war an impossibility, but she felt there was no alternative – aggression had to be resisted.
When it came to the miners’ strike, Arthur Scargill and the leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers did not realise how well prepared she was. In her eyes, the NUM and other trade unions threatened to make Britain ungovernable as well as uncompetitive. By covertly building up coal supplies at power stations, the government was ready for a strike that was always inevitable, and necessary to win.
Some see the phenomenon of New Labour as one of her greatest achievements, and indeed Keith Joseph frequently said that the war of ideas would only be won when the Labour Party shared more common ground with the Conservative Party. Mrs Thatcher’s three successive stunning electoral victories devastated Labour, and made it rethink everything from first principles.
Her achievement was to turn Britain round and rescue our economy. Having been the laggard of Europe, with a stagnant and uncompetitive economy, Britain was galvanised. It became respected and admired for its entrepreneurship. After Mrs Thatcher, the country had a growing economy, low public spending and competitive rates of taxation. Of course, in changing Britain as she did, there were people who were the casualties of change. She knew that as well as anyone.
She once remarked to me: “There are no final victories in politics.” She was acutely aware that, in spite of all the hard work and controversy, all her achievements could be undone. It had required a massive effort to change Britain for the better – but it would also require a huge effort to preserve those changes.
The task of the present Government, and of future governments of our country, must be to make sure we do not slip back into the state from which she rescued us.