The more realistic we are in assessing Lady Thatcher, the more positive we find we should be, and the more outstanding she and her achievements seem, says Iain Milne.
A small, square, largely unnoticed plaque inside York Railway Station testifies to much about the history of modern British governance. Amongst the worst economic ills besetting the UK in the ’70s, money was being devoured in inflation and in subsidising doomed industries, at the heavy cost of capital investment critical for jobs and the country’s future.
In both the state and private sectors, Margaret Thatcher made a huge contribution to reversing this – one of her numerous contributions to the country’s long-term recovery to such successes as it has subsequently had. Although they tend to get lost from sight in blurred and emotive current retrospect, these kind of concerns necessarily led policymaking.
The need for investment and innovation beyond the state’s capacity was a critical industrial problem, not shirked by the Thatcher government in the state sector where necessary, but most successfully answered in many areas by privatisation. Archbishop Justin Welby’s Easter warning against our tendency to pin far too much – hopes, hates, expectations – on individuals might appear to have been peculiarly ill-timed, before a week publicly so dominated by one lady.
But in fact the reverse is true. Idolisation of her is not wholly helpful, and the sum total of claims being made both for and certainly against Lady Thatcher are vastly beyond anything any individual could have achieved even had they wished to. She was not, in fact, a superhuman or demonic force who single-handedly punched a hole in the Belgrano, tore down the Berlin Wall with her bare hands, and returned home to set the sin of avarice burning in City hearts.
She was, instead, a committed Christian woman, with flaws and hopes, ideas and dreams, and decent patriotism; who spent her life to trying to get what she considered to be useful things done, out of those things which practically could be done; and managed to actually achieve much more than most in a similar position ever have.
I do not mean to portray anyone but the strong-willed and firm woman her closest confidantes saw her to be. But I do mean to say that when she took the time to carefully answer a child’s letter asking whether she was as good as Jesus in 1980, or when she spoke with great passion, if less theological art, to the General Assembly in 1988, it was not mere sophistry, but her humanly attempting to act in accordance with, and articulate, what she thought and believed.
I also mean to say that when criticising common usage of the term ‘society’, she did not necessarily see this in the way critics and friends, in the light of their own assumptions, have done (it is worth recalling, for example, that a couple of years later she acknowledged value in ‘fraternity’ in the same breath as she mocked the French Revolutionary expression of it).
And I do mean to say that her later key role in rallying Tory Euroscepticism, despite her previous leading support for the Common Market, derived not from hypocrisy, lunacy, or even senility (as, typical of many, even the admiring Radek Sikorski myopically implied recently), but from the real constants in her character – willingness to approach questions with considered values and scepticism, yet still prepared to be convinced by reason, to come to firm decisions, and to do her best to support her conclusions publicly.
All three of these examples of her character also show a striking willingness to differ publicly from everyday consensus on subjects she had thoughtful moral and intellectual opinions on, especially compared to today’s public figures. It seems to me that fellow supporters have spent too much of the last week distracted by the nastier invective she is continuing to get.
It is sad that due to assorted failures of institutions, public morality, and individuals’ decisions both in and far from government, Britain is not as free from 1970s-style division and weakness as it should be. But in much where things are better in this country, Lady Thatcher played her part in replacing discord with harmony.
That harmony has rarely been based on her personal character should be irrelevant in a country whose unifying figure should be our monarch (who chose to personally award Lady Thatcher the Order of Merit for her distinguished service).
Many things were wrong with the era she lived in, perhaps especially the 1980s, and even if one hopes some of the more ridiculous anti-Thatcher myths will soon be punctured, it is an understandable human fault that some who suffered for one reason or another in her era of ascent fall into the trap of blaming the dominant figure of the era for its problems.
But for the rest of us, in turning from our sadness at her passing, we shouldn’t fret about a small minority whose pathetic and pitiable hollow gestures are getting attention.
We should be positively celebrating a life well lived and, overall, of substantial lasting benefit to this country and the wider world; and on getting on with the (very substantial) unfinished business she left behind.
And we should be inspired to approach today’s political problems with the same moral conviction without self-righteousness that she had, and the same commitment to truth, and to practical results for good. May God keep her.
Iain is a postgraduate law student at the University of Law (York), and Honorary Vice- President of the University of York Conservative & Unionist Association.