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April 8, 2013 4:20 pm
The 1980s was the Thatcher decade – not only in Britain but across the world. She was that era’s most recognised political figure. Margaret Thatcher was dubbed “The Iron Lady” very early on by the Soviets. It characterised her style and helped to create her worldwide image. With her you knew exactly where she stood – she would have been hopeless at coalition.
Her reputation depended upon her success in Britain. In 1979 she inherited the weakest economy in Europe. When she left in 1990 it was the strongest: an amazing transformation.
Two of her predecessors – Ted Heath and James Callaghan – had been scalped by the organised trade union movement. She decided she was not going to be their third trophy head. Within four years of her taking office, the political power of the trade union movement, which had made Britain the sick man of Europe, had been destroyed.
One of the key features of the Thatcher transformation was her privatisation programme which began first with council houses – giving to literally millions of people the chance of owning their own homes instead of renting them from the state. That is why so many people who had never voted Conservative before in their lives gave her three election victories.
It was followed by the first major privatisation, British Telecom, which I had to handle. The rest of the world looked on and thought we were slightly mad. And even madder to try the same with gas and electricity, but within 10 years lots of countries had followed us. That was a Thatcher revolution which fundamentally changed and reduced the power of the modern state.
Her personality won the respect of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and she was seen as being able to play at their level – she boxed well above her weight. There is a wonderful piece of footage of her attending her first meeting of ministers in what was then called the European Common Market. As the male prime ministers were forming up for the all-important group photograph on a steep flight of stairs, a small fair-haired lady appeared at the back row. Within two minutes she had managed to move right down, through the grey suits, occasionally using her elbow, to the very centre of the front step – an early indication of how she was to defend and enhance Britain’s reputation in the world.
She always felt that her greatest responsibility was to enhance Britain’s position in the world – commercially, financially and militarily if necessary. The last did became necessary following the invasion of the Falkland Islands. On the day the Falklands were invaded I had been ask to arrange a lunch at 10 Downing Street for the prime minister to meet the leading figures from the electronics industry. I fully expected a call from No 10 to say the lunch was postponed. But not at all, I was told to entertain them until she arrived.
At 1pm promptly, two hours after receiving the news from the Falklands, she appeared and for the next hour we talked about BT privatisation, microchips and mobile phones. I was totally amazed that knowing what had happened and knowing what she would have to do she was quite prepared to discuss all this. At 2pm, after receiving two messages during the lunch, she got up and said, “Well gentlemen I have other work to do. We know our duty.” Her resolution to send the invasion fleet and to see it right through to the end was a remarkable exercise in leadership. In the House of Commons Enoch Powell said, “The prime minister received the sobriquet as the Iron Lady. In the next week or two, this House, this nation and the right honourable lady herself will learn of what metal she is made.”
Margaret always looked upon Europe as a “common market”, but she recognised that there was an almost irresistible movement to a political union involving a common currency. In her Bruges speech, in what now seems rather mild terms, she was trying to apply a gentle handbrake, but the movement towards unification was remorseless and unforgiving. All her successor PMs were to express even more eurosceptic views. But at her heart, she knew that the EU was not the best protector of Britain’s interests.
She heralded the death of socialism in Britain and her greatest legacy was that Tony Blair, a Labour prime minister with thumping majorities, did not destroy what she had done, he built upon it.
All those of us who worked with Margaret in the 1980s – MPs, ministers, generals, admirals, civil service mandarins, diplomats, leading business figures – all related their lives and activities to her. She allowed them to fulfil their ambitions, to win back the respect of others and to walk tall in the wider world.
Lord Baker served as environment secretary, education secretary, chairman of the Conservative party and home secretary from 1985 until 1992
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