CHARLES GRAHAM - Love her or hate her, she changed the face of Britain

ANYONE who saw their coal-mining livelihood evaporate during the 1980s is unlikely to be shedding tears for Margaret Thatcher this week.

A totally understandable reaction among those badly hit by her domestic policies - and, boy, there were a lot of folk in Wigan - although I would hope that even the most bitter would have the courtesy to her family not to be glorying in her demise.

It is true that during her 11 years at 10 Downing Street, Baroness Thatcher engendered both great respect, adoration even, from some quarters; and utter loathing from others.

But stepping back to look at everything she did both at home and abroad, I find it quite difficult to see her as a “Marmite” character. Like most leaders she had a mixture of successes and failures. But as is so often the case, someone is defined by one or two actions to the exclusion of all else.

Some folk can see no wrong, others nothing but the bad: the latter hardly surprising if your world of work has been destroyed, for instance, and I have no intention of even attempting to change those poor people’s position on her.

Yet among the black and white of the Thatcher era there were also plenty of grey areas.

The Scottish nation as a whole took against Thatcher en bloc when she decided to pilot the poll tax north of the border.

The premise of this antipathy seems to be that she had an evil plan to foist something she knew to be terrible on the most electorally expendable part of the country.

Yet surely she introduced it because she thought it was a good and fairer replacement for the rates system, no matter how ill-conceived the idea was. After all we were all going to get it eventually.

We did, the public didn’t like it and expressed themselves in less reserved terms than in most British protests (yet still managing not to lynch anyone) and forced a change from the poll tax to the community charge.

As far as I am concerned, of much greater long-term impact were her industrial policies and those on encouraging individuals to get out there and make something of their lives.

They changed the face of Britain forever but again in a mixture of good and bad ways. As far as self-determination was concerned in the pros column it empowered more working class people to set up their own companies and prosper, but in the cons column the pursuit of money at all costs led to a new era of selfishness and greed that it has been hard to end.

While the 1980s were seen as a time of domestic strife, with riots, rampant unemployment and the collapse of our manufacturing base, you also have to bear in mind that the 1970s was no bed of roses either: a near bankrupt country having to be bailed out by the IMF, crippling inflation rates and pre-Thatcher governments held to ransom by endless strikes.

Britain’s first female PM tackled these issues head on, again with mixed results: Clipping union wings too much for my liking and doing nowhere near enough to compensate for the mining and manufacturing industries she was decimating.

Undoubtedly the Falklands War victory won Thatcher her second term in office when domestically her policies were foundering; but while detractors have suggested that the conflict in the South Atlantic was mere political opportunism, one does wonder whether other Prime Ministers before or since would have reacted any differently had the Argentinian invasion happened on their watch.

And, as can so often happen with national leaders, she won greater respect and favour abroad than she did at home.

One thing irrefutable about the Iron Lady was that she always fought for Britain, not least in Europe where many a eurocract was on the receiving end of a handbagging if she thought her nation was being taken for a ride.

And it is particularly significant that those paying tribute to her in the media this week were not just the predictable stream of right wingers, but also figures including Ed Milliband to Lech Walesa, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama who had positive things to say about her while clearly not having much in common politically. She was the first person to whom both Blair and Brown turned for advice when they took office so they had the sense not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

You get into muddy waters though when people say that she was “our greatest peacetime leader”. I think that’s an extremely subjective view and the very fact that many will disagree with that term even with the benefit of so many years of political hindsight counts much against such a claim.

Mind you, how often do people look back and say “by gum, he was a good Prime Minister?” So many occupants of Number 10 set sail with a big mandate and full of good intentions only for the country to become mired in strikes, debt, war, crime, public sector crises and political scandal.

Even Churchill, often declared Britain’s greatest PM of all, was far from the perfect politician. Some of his domestic policies (granted, they were first implemented in the midst of war) were so ill-received that the public rewarded him for leading us to victory over Hitler by booting him out of office in 1945.

So it’s difficult to credit many if any Prime Ministers with absolute greatness, let alone such a controversial one as Baroness Thatcher.

She was a strong leader who stuck to her guns and, as Wigan’s Labour council leader Lord Smith graciously conceded this week (despite a gulf between his and her ideologies) that she did much to break down prejudice while presenting a strong role model.

That said she did cause a hell of a lot of discord and in the end became so fixated and convinced of her own ideas that she stopped listening to anyone else, including her closest cabinet colleagues.

For better or for worse Thatcher had a greater impact on this country than most leaders before or since. And a nation will be forever strongly divided over her legacy.