Monday, 8 April 2013

Maggie Thatcher - RIP

I have been quite astounded and shocked by the many appalling things written on social media today as people heard about the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher.  Not because I am naive enough to think she was always right, nor that her policies did not impact unequally on the electorate. But what stronger evidence could we have of the manipulation of popular opinion by the gutter press than the outcry which went up today.

Many of the posts I have read are from those who were not even alive when she was Prime Minister, who have no first hand experience of life in the 1970s with the plethora of strikes and the 3 day week, with dead bodies rotting in the sun with no one to bury them, the water strikes, the power outages, and the National Debt. People forget we went to the IMF cap in hand for a $4 billion bail out in the 70s and she not only paid off the massive sum but in 1997 the outgoing Conservative government left a £20 billion surplus for Tony Blair on leaving Office - £40 billion more than Brown's government had in the bank by 2008.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 the top rate of tax was 83%; by the time she left it was 40%. During the 1970 high earners left the country, the infamous "Brain Drain" and our economy suffered. Under her aegis government spending dropped from 42.7% of GDP to 39.2% of GDP (though it actually rose for much of the 80s, and health spending never really fell). We were were also still paying off a debt to the USA when Thatcher came to power, it was offered as help in the post World War 2 period when Britain was essentially bankrupt- payments for which were sometimes suspended if the exchange rate were significantly disadvantageous. (since the loan was linked to the convertability of sterling) Under Thatcher our pound strengthened, payments were no longer missed and this added to improved relations with the USA.

Britain regained considerable national standing in Europe under Thatcher who negotiated the British rebate saying "We are simply asking to have our own money back." She was a formidable character on the International stage and Britain was a  strong advocate of the Single Market. However she never envisaged giving up a degree of national sovereignty which was a corollary to this. In her keynote speech on Europe, delivered in Bruges in September 1988, she said: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising new dominance from Brussels." I am very against "Big Government" as I have said before, and I fully support the ethos of a single market but feel - as do many many others - that the European Union has gone too far, and some of Thatcher's fears were not so wide of the mark. Maybe she was just braver than the rest of us and voiced what others felt unable to do? She was, in her own words, a "Conviction Politician" and they are a rare breed. Far more credible and with greater integrity than the "Convenience Politician"of today, who nurtures a short termist approach to politics with his or her eye fixed almost solely on the next election. Thatcher was ambitious, yes, but had a vision.

Thatcher played a major role in the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Soviet Union and when she left power one Russian newspaper ran the headline that if we didn't want her, they did. She was a major player in bringing the Cold War to an end. Today the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled her as "one of the greatest leaders in world politics of her time. The freedom of the individual was at the centre of her beliefs so she recognised very early the power of the movements for freedom in Eastern Europe... I will never forget her contribution in overcoming Europe's division and the end of the Cold War." Unfortunately she was a product of her generation and was against German reunification,  when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 Helmut Kohl  recalls her saying "We beat the Germans twice and now they're back."

It is easy to condemn her for an unpleasant war in which many died if you did not live in the Falklands when Argentina threatened, easy not to appreciate the international standing we gained with a strong pound and a strong leader.... there were many positives to her time in Office. And yes we rode the recession rollercoaster - never good, but her governments never precipitated the incredible deficit and recession the last Labour government did. Following the "Big Bang" reforms in the City during her tenancy, the financial sector has become more and more important to the UK economy. Oh I know, I know you will shake your head and ask about what the banks have done for us.... but it was the relaxation of banking regulations by Labour in this country and governments elsewhere which facilitated the "gambling" activities of the investment banks which precipitated the current recession. Banking per se is the biggest contributor to our GDP - and we would do well to remember that.

Those who had never owned their own home had the opportunity for the first time when council homes were offered for sale, a major step for many keen to be upwardly mobile. Obviously selling Council housing raised much needed funds to help the country climb out of the financial mess it was in, it WAS a short term measure for the country but people today forget the long term benefit to many who had the opportunity to buy. Home ownership flourished under Thatcher: the total number of Britons who owned their own property rose by around 2.5m and kept rising.

The gap between rich and poor did however increase by the end of her tenure which was perhaps the biggest reason for her vilification. The Poll Tax was in many ways a simple, fair and sensible alternative to the Rating system but unfortunately served to demonstrate how detached she had become from those who voted her in in 1979. The grass roots Tories felt stabbed in the back and the Conservative government of today is still trying to win back that foundation of support. But in 1979 Britain was in such a mess both economically, politically and socially that we needed a strong leader who could see the "Bigger Picture"- someone who had vision and could focus on the times ahead. If Sir Winston Churchill had paused to consider the young RAF pilots he sent to their deaths during WW2 we would most likely have lost the War, and like then in 1979 we needed someone who could think ahead unswervingly with their eye on the goal rather than get distracted by every detail. Unfortunately the natural corollary to this was that whilst the country as a whole benefitted hugely not every individual was a beneficiary. But hard times demand hard measures and collectively we were significantly better off. The Blair years sought to redistribute the country's wealth with some measure of success but we have been left in a society where so many seem completely unable to see beyond their own circumstances, where negativity reigns in a sound-bite happy nation who don't wish to scratch beneath the surface. We SHOULD be proud to be British, to have pride in who we are at each level. National pride is as essential as personal pride and should never be confused with arrogance and conceit. Thatcher did indeed take "a country that was on its knees and make Britain stand tall again."

It is perhaps worth pointing out a few myths about Margaret Thatcher that our press have enjoyed promoting over the years:-

1) Despite the "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher" taunt, cutting free school milk was not her policy. Thatcher was given a difficult choice in essential cuts by Prime Minister Heath.

"In August 1970, the new Secretary of State for Education responded to a Treasury demand for education cuts in four areas: 
Further Education fees 
Library book borrowing charges 
School meal charges 
Free school milk 
In principle, the minister who became known for her public-spending cutting zeal once she took power in 1979, appeared concerned at what the public perception of the cuts would be.Responding to the demands to end free school milk, Mrs Thatcher said: "I think that the complete withdrawal of free milk for our school children would be too drastic a step and would arouse more widespread public antagonism than the saving justifies."She proposed the compromise, later accepted, that milk would only be available to pupils in nursery and primary schools."

2) The Wilson Government closed more coal pits than the Thatcher administration! Based on figures from government, Based on figures from the government about 290 mines closed under Wilson in all his time in office, and about 160 under Thatcher.

3) As illustrated by the Financial Times, manufacturing's share of the economy fell 3.3% under Thatcher, but fell 7.6% under last Labour government

Forgive me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that when someone passed away you tended to remember the positive aspects of their life. Their contributions to society, achievements and above all their legacy. I sincerely hope when my time comes the person speaking about my life doesn't seek to dredge up every criticism, dislike and prejudice they might have had of me. We should be better than that.  Jumping on the gutter press bandwagon when you have no experience of the times is inexcusable.

David Cameron: "Margaret #Thatcher took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again."

The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, described her as a "circumspect yet engaged player in the EU. Her legacy has done much to shape the United Kingdom as we know it today, including the special role of the UK in the European Union that endures to this day."

Berlusconi: Margaret #Thatcher was the greatest statesperson of the XX century. She made moderates proud of their ideas. Today is a sad day.

Damian Barr "In many ways #Thatcher seperated the people from the government and allowed them to become individuals."

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