IRON WILL IN POLITICS: MARGARET THATCHER

Hungary’s leading conservative think tank, Századvég Foundation has jointly organised with Budapest-based Danube Institute and Hungarian Review a conference on Margaret Thatcher on 5 May 2016. The event was the second of a series entitled A Europe of Values. In this issue we are publishing contributions by three former British associates of the late Prime Minister. The series began with a conference on the principles of leadership and political legacy of General Charles de Gaulle – the contributions were printed in the previous issue of Hungarian Review. Other events are to follow within this framework on great European leaders of the last half century. The theme is given topicality by the painful leadership and value crises witnessed in present day Europe.

Orsolya Pacsay Tomassich

LADY THATCHER’S LEGACY IN BRITAIN

I would like to focus on three areas: first, drawing on what Prime Minister David Cameron and British political leaders said about Lady Thatcher, I would like to give some sense of what they believed her legacy to be. You will appreciate that it is difficult for me as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to give some sort of authorised account or official view of Lady Thatcher. There is no such thing. However, we can identify key agreed elements of her legacy from what important figures from very different political persuasions said after she died.

I would also like to make a few comments about her famous Bruges speech of 1988 in light of the current debate in the UK on EU membership. And finally, I will say a few things about my own experience of Lady Thatcher, from my own contacts with her.

When Lady Thatcher died in April 2013, David Cameron led tributes to her in the House of Commons, together with, among others, the then leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrats parties, addressing the question of what was Margaret Thatcher’s political legacy. I do not claim that these are comprehensive but I do believe that they give a flavour of her major and lasting achievements.

Margaret Thatcher was our first and, thus far, only female Prime Minister. She won three elections in a row, serving for a longer continuous period than any Prime Minister had for more than one hundred and fifty years. Her achievements were remarkable: in a very different era, she became a female MP, the first female leader of a political party and then Prime Minister.

The context in which she came to power is important. Britain was widely regarded as “the sick man of Europe” or, as David Cameron observed, we were victims of the “British disease”. I recall from my own experience, and here I must admit that I was involved in conservative student politics, that there was deep despondency about our future. As David Cameron noted, Margaret Thatcher rejected the notion of inevitable decline. Britain needed to change and she had clear views about what those changes should be. Her conviction and resolve led to major changes in the politics of the UK and in public policy. As she herself noted in the early 2000s when asked what her greatest legacy was she replied: “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” And as Tony Blair himself said shortly after Lady Thatcher died, she was one of the very few leaders who changed not only the political landscape of their own country, but the rest of the world too. Or, as Winston Churchill once put it, there are politicians who “make the weather”. Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly one of them.

After Labour’s election in 1997, the new government did not roll back Margaret Thatcher’s industrial relations reforms. Nor did Labour think it made sense that the state should once again own a telephone company, the national airline or, indeed, a travel firm. Nor did it reverse the “right to buy” policy, which enabled public housing tenants to purchase their houses or flats.

As one critic noted at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, quite consciously, New Labour sought to differentiate itself from the party’s recent past, a history in which she had beaten it in three general elections. The pledge to “enhance the dynamism of the market” which Labour made in its 1997 manifesto was undoubtedly shaped by the country that Britain had become after nearly two decades of Conservative rule.

As David Cameron noted, she believed strongly in British and European values: in democracy, in the rule of law, in right over might. She loathed Communism and believed in the invincible power of the human spirit to resist and ultimately defeat tyranny, as is evident from her famous Bruges speech.

And so I think my Prime Minister was right when he said that across the world there are millions of people who owe their freedom, in part, to Lady Thatcher. For example, in Kuwait, across Eastern and Central Europe, and in the Falkland Islands.

But what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of the political arguments of the 70s and 80s, and even early 90s, are no longer arguments at all. As David Cameron noted, many of the principles that Lady Thatcher fought for are now part of the accepted political landscape in our country.

And that was acknowledged by both Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg in their own tributes. Ed Milliband noted that she defined the politics of a whole generation and influenced the politics of generations to come. He said she was right to understand the sense of aspiration of people across the country. She was right to recognise our economy needed to change. She was right to defend the Falklands and bravely reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union. She was also the first political leader in any major country to warn of the dangers of climate change. He concluded by saying, “Whatever your view of her, Margaret Thatcher was a unique and towering figure. Today, we also remember a prime minister who defined her age.”

Nick Clegg echoed this theme of a transformational figure, while disagreeing with many of her policies, when he said “it is impossible to deny the indelible imprint Margaret Thatcher made both on this nation and the wider world. She was among those very rare leaders who became a towering historical figure not as written in the history books, but when still in the prime of her political life. Margaret Thatcher created a paradigm: setting the parameters for economic, political and social debate for decades to come. She drew the lines on a political map that we, here, are still navigating today.”

He noted that she participated in one of the most profound periods of European integration – she herself was an important architect of the Single Market.

And on that note I would like to turn to her 1988 Bruges speech. Like her former Private Secretary, Lord Powell, I do not believe that Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech was anti-European or anti-EU. She championed the European Single Market and accepted more qualified majority voting, instead of the principle of unanimity, because she did not want individual countries to block that market.

As she noted in her speech:

The European Community is one manifestation of that European identity. It is not the only one.
We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots.
We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities.


I re-read her speech over the weekend. Written 26 years ago in a very different Europe and a very different world there are, at least for me, many elements which are as true now as they were then.

When she said, for example, that the EU will never prosper as a narrow-minded, inward-looking club. I quote:

The European Community belongs to all its members. It must reflect the traditions and aspirations of all its members.
And let me be quite clear, Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.


That I believe, and my Prime Minister and the British government believe, is still the case, as do our Hungarian friends. As does every single non-European ally and close partner of the UK which has commented on the referendum and the membership question.

She continued:

Nor is it an institutional device to be constantly modified according to the dictates of some abstract intellectual concept. Nor must it be ossified by endless regulation.
The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations. Europe has to compete commercially in a world in which success goes to the countries which encourage individual initiative and enterprise, rather than those which attempt to diminish them.


Again that plea for relevance and competitiveness is one which both Britain and Hungary could agree on right now.

My first guiding principle is this: willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community.
I am the first to say that on many great issues the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice. I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world. The aim of a Europe open to enterprise is the moving force behind the creation of the Single European Market. By getting rid of barriers, by making it possible for companies to operate on a European scale, we can best compete with the United States, Japan and other new economic powers emerging in Asia and elsewhere.
Let us have a Europe which plays its full part in the wider world, which looks outward not inward, and which preserves that Atlantic community – that Europe on both sides of the Atlantic – which is our noblest inheritance and our greatest strength.


All of this suggests to me that David Cameron is right when he says that the UK would be undeniably better off, stronger and safer in the European Union than outside, notwithstanding the changes that have taken place in the world and within the EU over the last 28 years.

In a much earlier speech in June 1978, again in Belgium, to Les Grandes Conférences Catholiques, Lady Thatcher made approving references to European unity: “in the European community we have forged new associations between old enemies which have transformed the nature of European politics”. She talked about the need for resolution to keep our friendships in Europe in good repair.

Let me conclude with a few personal memories about Lady Thatcher. I remember vividly the election of 1979 and the strong sense on election night that we were about to enter a very different era of politics, an era of significant change.

Roll on 4 years to 1983. My next recollection reflects the esteem in which she was held by many behind the then Iron Curtain. A friend of mine in the Embassy in Warsaw where I was serving in 1982–83 was not a Thatcher fan. Quite the contrary, she was a strong Labour Party supporter. You can imagine her shock and surprise then when on election night in 1983, when it was clear that Mrs Thatcher had been re-elected prime minister, her Polish landlord presented her with a large bouquet of flowers and talked lovingly of the “Iron Lady”.

My own contact with her was largely limited to her tour of Australia in 1988, when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary. She visited several cities over the space of a week: a long time to spend in any one country on an overseas trip. I was in charge of her programme, flying ahead of her and moving onto the next destination once she had arrived safely in her destination.

It was no always an easy visit. There were protests against her, e.g. by IRA supporters in Melbourne. But throughout the visit she showed incredible stamina and good humour, and kindness to those around her. As in the UK, she argued with passion in her meetings with Australian leaders, a mix of those sympathetic to her politics as well as those, such as Prime Minister Hawke, who had a very different political perspective. She stuck to her guns, underlining her description of herself as a conviction politician, a woman of principle.

And so to her departure from office in 1990. Many people, including myself, found it hard to believe. This was truly the end of an era. But the beginning of her legacy.

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