Margaret Thatcher turned British politics upside down by being a conviction politician with determination and a connection with her public.
After the failings of the Heath era, she took the party leadership and transformed it. Out went the languid landed gentry and in came the entrepreneurs, the driven and the self-made. With a new sense of purpose, she won the 1979 election for the party and became Prime minister.
During her premiership the nation became divided as the initial harsh years devastated parts of the country. Few were indifferent, people either liked or loathed her.
The turning point was the Falklands conflict. For perhaps the last time, the media were kept at bay, sometimes literally, as a bold move paid off.
She had acted on principle, believing that islanders who wished to remain British should do so. The left were reeling from the 1979 defeat and appeared to be disorientated. Britain was a nation trying to redefine itself after the end of empire. By reclaiming the islands there was also the reassurance for some that being British still counted for something.
The left failed to appreciate the effect that selling of council homes to their tenants had on their voters. Many Labour voters wanted to be home owners.
Privatisation didn’t work out as planned, the effect of opening up share ownership to the public was heavily criticised, but Thatcher was trying to bring people into the stock market, Labour looked like wanting to keep them out. The ‘big bang’ in the City trading floors has has consequences that are debated today.
History will be kind to her, it often looks at the broader picture. While she was a divisive politician at home she appeared decisive abroad. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, she urged action and got it.
She stood firm against Communism, a stance that will provide her legacy.
Labour failed to mount a serious alternative, or occasionally a serious candidate against the greengrocer’s daughter. They came close over a scandal over helicopters, but then leader, Neil Kinnock failed to land a single blow.
In the end she went a step too far with the introduction of the Poll Tax.She learned that in politics, it’s not those on the benches opposite you need to watch, but those at your back.
She entered Downing St quoting Saint Francis, “Where there is discord may we bring harmony, Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” In 1987 she said, at the party conference, “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families,”
Few would say that she reconciled the two statements.
After her fall, the Conservatives chose John Major, who managed to win elections against a still struggling Labour party, until the dying days of his government were extinguished by Labour’s late response to Thatcher, Tony Blair, who shared her messianic touch, but although Thatcher’s principles were clear to all, Blair’s were less so.
Blair was also in conflict with Gordon Brown, their own Ted Heath, albeit with the demeanor of a Nixon, though not the criminality.
The Conservatives had their period in the wilderness until they found their Blair in David Cameron, but lacking his election winning skills.
Britain is likely to go into the next election with the major parties being led by Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Margaret Thatcher was different, a conviction politician whose views were clear. Even her ardent supporters will say she had her faults, made miscalculations and was even wrong on rare occasions, but you knew what she stood for.
While there will be a heated debate on what she stood for, what do the present party leaders stand for?