Unwavering focus and an unyielding determination to prevail. All the great leaders in world history had these qualities. Some are held in high esteem for their altruism and their legacy of beneficial reforms, others are despised for the destruction they wrought. Harry S. Truman said: “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still.” Great leaders who moved society along and whose names are now etched in the annals of history include, in no particular order, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler, Julius Caesar, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Martin Luther King and Yasser Arafat. There are more. All these people seized the tapestry of history and left the imprint of their grip upon it.
In time, people will almost certainly accept the name of Margaret Thatcher in such a list. What is less certain is how we will finally assess her legacy. When the list is sub-divided into good leaders and bad leaders, where will we place her? Was it a time of triumph or a reign of terror? The politics of conviction, or contempt? Without doubt, she was one of the dominant political figures of the 20th Century, but the reports of her death have provoked the same discordant outpouring of admiration and loathing as her persona and her policies sparked during her 11-year term as prime minister from May 1979 to November 1990.
The daughter of a greengrocer and an outsider in the Conservative party, this curate’s egg of a leader imposed her creed of self-improvement on British society and became a champion of aspiration and social mobility, encouraging and inspiring working class people to become shareholders and homeowners. Freeing businesses from the shackles of state ownership and trade union obstruction, she promoted a new entrepreneurial culture and rescued the economy from a seemingly terminal decline. In pointing out the folly of lumping disparate economies into a currency union, she showed clear-eyed prescience in her dealings with Europe. By the end of her reign, she had resurrected an apparently ungovernable country into a powerful player on the world stage, substantially influential in the collapse of the Communist bloc.
The consequences of her combative nature and her iron will were often controversial and she polarised public opinion. Her unabashed and unapologetic patriotism may have been just the medicine the country needed at the time, but many were bothered by the side effects. She refused to give in to terrorists and was left unmoved by the deaths of IRA hunger-strikers. Reclaiming the Falkland Islands from General Galtieri was achieved at the cost of 236 British fatalities and the loss of several Royal Navy vessels. She was always convinced she was right. We were subjected to brutal images of police engaging with miners in ugly pitched battles, the sorry spectacle of the poll tax riots and the rent fabric of a divided society. Industrial communities still bear the scars. When the numbers of unemployed swelled to over three million as a result of Thatcherite economic reforms, I was in the front line of a local DHSS office struggling to cope with hordes of bitter, angry and frustrated claimants who descended upon us day after day in the early eighties.
When she first arrived at the steps of 10 Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher famously paraphrased the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” No one could have missed the irony of that moment when it was repeated ad nauseam during BBC’s coverage of the news yesterday. Calls for commemorative statues were drowned out by noisy gatherings in Bristol, Brixton and Glasgow celebrating her death. I don’t think it would have come as a surprise to Baroness Thatcher that the condemnations were as fulsome as the eulogies. She probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.
If we erect statues to Margaret Thatcher, they will have to be made of iron and daubed with graffiti.