Margaret Thatcher finally lost her battle with ill health yesterday, and the world erupted with disparate views on her life and legacy. It is difficult to imagine a more polarising figure in modern political history: throw two rocks in the air and you are bound to hit someone who loved, and someone else who loathed her and her policies. What is beyond doubt, however, is that she led, and managed first her party, then her country and managed to impose her own views like few others have in history.
It is no exaggeration to say that, although, of course, democratically elected, Thatcher led in a highly autocratic style. She would listen to the views of others, but when push came to shove, she would always have the final say: in her own words, “being Prime Minister is a lonely job…you cannot lead from the crowd”. In an almost Lenin-esque style, she was unafraid to push through unpopular measures that she felt were the necessary medicine for the country to succeed long-term; something that was in distinct contrast to the way that Tony Blair constantly worried about popularity during his three terms in office. Again, like a quasi-dictator, Thatcher crushed all opposition: firstly within her own party, when she refused to heed the doubts and advise of the Heathite “wets” of the left of her party, then in the infamous industrial fight with the National Union of Mineworkers. Many will argue that she was prepared for these fights by her initial political rise, undoubtedly coming up against resistance due to being an ambitious female, in a time when there were even fewer women in politics than there are today.
Unfortunately, like many before her, while her autocratic style was a strength, it also ultimately caused her downfall. She pushed through a measure too far – the hugely unpopular Poll Tax – which ultimately fell to disquiet within the Conservative Party, colleague upon colleague advising her to change path or face opprobrium. Her subsequent isolation meant that people were afraid to deal with her directly, or to warn her of impending threats to her power. Her ousting as leader in a few dramatic days in 1990 – under which each cabinet minister craftily assured her of his own personal support but warned that his colleagues were against her and thus advised her to go – was an expertly orchestrated piece of bloodless matricide.
What is certain, however, is that her style of leadership produced results. For a great many people – those on the wrong side of her crusades – they were negative. But for Thatcher, they were overwhelmingly positive – she achieved what she set out to achieve and irrevocably changed the political landscape for ever. So much so that many argue she not only crystallised the political vision of Thatcherism which has dominated every Conservative government since, but also imposed it on the Labour Party; New Labour really was new, in that it stole a great many Thatcherite policies. Many of her decisions were also virtually irreversible, such as the privatisation of nationalised industries. Thatcher led by force of character, by conviction and with little heed to others’ opinions. There can be no doubting the success of the methods, at least in the earlier years of her tenure. Yet the success of the results are open to the debate that will continue for the following weeks, months – and years.