News Analysis

Friday 19 September 2014

Kim Bielenberg: Thatcher – The hard-liner who shaped the Celtic Tiger

Published 08/04/2013 | 15:27

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LOVE her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher was the dominant political figure in these islands of the past 40 years.

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She not only brought about dramatic change in Britain and Northern Ireland, but her free market economic policies had a profound influence in this jurisdiction as well.

 

An entire generation defined itself by where it stood on Maggie – for or against.

 

She promoted self-reliance at the expense of state provision to a degree that many saw as heartless.

 

She started a vogue for privatisation and light touch regulation that lasted for almost two decades after her departure from Downing Street.

 

Her imprint could later be seen in the privatisation policies of our own Celtic Tiger finance minister Charlie McCreevy and the Progressive Democrats.

 

At the height of Ireland’s boom, McCreevy paid tribute to her for turning around Britain’s sick economy.

 

On the one hand, her abrasive refusal to compromise in Northern Ireland in the face of terrorist violence ensured that the IRA was not successful in its war aims.

 

She could never be accused of appeasement.

 

On the other hand, it could be argued that her failure to take on board the views of more moderate Catholic nationalists prolonged the conflict unnecessarily.

 

It did not take that long for a peace agreement to fall into place after she left office.

 

It is difficult now to conjure up the devotion felt by many Britons in the wake of her victory against Argentina in the Falklands War in 1982.

 

I lived in England during the mid-eighties, and at that time her dominance was so great that there was a feeling that Labour might never win again.

 

Part of her success was down to the shambolic nature of a divided Labour opposition. In that respect, she was a lucky general.

 

Even voters who would not have been natural Tory bedfellows were prepared to back a strong leader, who revelled in pronouncements such as “You turn if you want to. The lady is not for turning.”

 

When she arrived in Number 10 in 1979, Maggie quoted the words of St Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope."

 

Seldom was an introductory message so inappropriate.  Even her most fervent admirers would not argue that she created harmony, and across great swathes of Britain – including mining towns and declining cities such as Liverpool – she brought despair.

 

She set about smashing the power of trade unions, and was largely successful in that respect.

 

Eventually, 18 years after her victory in a general election, Labour’s Tony Blair did win in 1997 against  her successor John Major, but only by borrowing many of her beliefs.

 

It was a mark of Thatcher’s political success that successive Labour Prime Ministers could not conceal their admiration for the woman who was once dubbed “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher”.

 

Blair may have used more honeyed rhetoric as Prime Minister, but he did not reverse her pro-privatisation policies.

 

Even some of Thatcher’s opponents will agree with David Cameron tribute in which he said Britain had lost “a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton”. But many others will beg to differ.

 

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