RIP Maggie: She must have been doing something right

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

A lady not for turning: Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


I was at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery a couple of years ago for the 25th anniversary debate on the Miners’ Strike.

Despite the best efforts of the organisers and the chairman of the panel on stage, it felt rather more like an ambush than a genuine debate.

Understandably, a good number of people in the room were from mining communities and the bile and vitriol reserved for a former Conservative Minister was there for all to see.

Suffice to say, Edwina Currie – a woman who doesn’t need me to defend her – deserved the utmost respect for turning up to be shot at here in a solid Labour, working class city.

My overwhelming thought as I left the lecture theatre was ‘thank goodness it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher’.

Thatcher ‘the milk snatcher’; Thatcher: Who came up with the Poll Tax; Thatcher: Whose government oversaw the closure of 150 coalmines which devastated communities across the UK; Thatcher: Who crushed the trade unions; Thatcher: Whose belief in the free-market economy and privatisation promoted greed and selfishness on a scale never seen before.

You’ll read all of the above and more in the coming days as the country comes to terms with the loss of a towering political figure.

In my opinion, this is a very selective and simplistic version of the Margaret Thatcher story – and a markedly biased one which panders to left-wing rhetoric.

Since the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death broke yesterday we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of people actually celebrating her passing.

‘Bing bong’ posted people on Facebook and Twitter – quoting ‘the witch is dead’ line from The Wizard of Oz.

I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that people are dancing on someone’s grave or that they can’t find a decent thing to say about one of only two leaders of note this country has seen since Churchill.

It was Tony Benn no less, that most respected of Labour heavyweights, who often held Margaret Thatcher up as an example of how a great political party should be led.

She came to power in 1979 as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and, in doing so, sent shockwaves through the old boys’ club that was the Houses of Parliament.

Surely that ticks a box with everyone? Go on, admit it.

Let’s also not forget that Mrs Thatcher inherited a country in turmoil, paralysed by industrial unrest and half as productive and prosperous as it could have been.

Trade unions were trotting in and out of Downing Street with their demands, rubbish littered the streets, the dead lay un-buried and the IMF was banging on Britain’s door because ‘the sick man of Europe’ was bankrupt.

She set about transforming Britain’s economy – something she did at questionable social cost – and was vilified for her crusade against the very unions who had held previous Labour administrations to ransom.

Mrs Thatcher will be forever remembered as the Prime Minister who destroyed the UK’s mining industry. Few, however, are brave enough to concede that large parts of the industry were loss-making and that coal mines were also closing all over Europe.

Maggie’s government introduced the Right To Buy scheme for council homes – one of the most important pieces of empowering social legislation this country has ever seen.

She was despised by the IRA for her hard-line stance on terrorism and almost paid for it with her life. Even that didn’t cow her.

It was Mrs Thatcher’s deep-held sense of belief in standing up to aggressors and defending Britain, forged during the dark days of the Second World War, which shaped her response to the Falklands Crisis.

The resulting improbable victory was spectacular and owed much to Maggie’s unshakeable belief in the importance of defending ‘her people’.

The woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by her enemies in Moscow needed no spin doctors – unlike those who have succeeded her at Number 10. She was talked-about, respected and, crucially, listened to on the world stage and was certainly the equal of any statesman across the globe.

I dare say George W. Bush wouldn’t have got away with talking to Maggie the way he did the political poodle that was Tony Blair.

The very fact that she was the first Prime Minister to win three elections in a row tells me that Margaret Thatcher must have being doing something right in the eyes of the majority of those who could be bothered to vote.

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‘If the Falklands were invaded, I’d like to think Britain would do same again’

British troops on the Falklands in 1982.

British troops on the Falklands in 1982.

It is incredible to think that it was more than 30 years ago that many of us sat glued to the television news and watched the Falklands Conflict unfold.

The names still trip off the tongue of anyone over the age of 40:
‘Bomb Alley’. Goose Green. Mount Tumbledown. Bluff Cove and Fitzroy. Port Stanley. Mirage fighter jets. Exocet missiles.

The Sun’s ‘Gotcha’ headline, the of the sinking General Belgrano, the explosions onboard HMS Sheffield and the blazing Sir Galahad are etched in our memories.

This was 1982. There was no internet, no social media and no mobile telephones.

It was the first time that a major conflict involving British forces had been played out through nightly TV news bulletins – the colour images (for those who had colour televisions) bringing the horrors of war into our living rooms like never before.

During the months of April, May and June, the country held its breath for what seemed a very risky undertaking – i.e. sending a task force 8,000 miles away for a scrap on the aggressor’s doorstep.

Only afterwards did we learn what a close-run thing it was, just how much of a gamble it had been and how ill-prepared for war our Armed Forces actually were.

The conflict lasted only 74 days but resulted in the deaths of 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders.

Caught up in the euphoria of a remarkable, improbable victory voters returned Maggie’s government to power and the rest, as they say, is history.

Three decades after Argentine forces on the Falklands surrendered the country’s government is again ratcheting up the tension.

Most Argentines regard the islands, which they refer to as Las Malvinas, as belonging to Argentina and their recovery is even enshrined in the country’s constitution.

It was tub-thumping by Argentine politicians in recent years which prompted the referendum that took place in the Falklands over the last two days.

The result may have been entirely predictable but it was nevertheless important that voters went through the motions.

When Falkland Islanders voted on whether or not to remain a British overseas territory, they were demonstrating democracy in action.

They were telling the rest of the world that the majority of people on that group of islands in the South Atlantic want to remain British.

In voting yes they also gave a ‘hands off’ warning to the Argentine government.

According to Argentine President Cristian Fernandez de Kirchner, of course, the wishes of those inhabitants are irrelevant and the referendum is a pointless exercise.

For her government this is a purely ‘territorial issue’ and thus they often dust off ancient manuscripts to claim that Argentina inherited the islands from the Spanish crown in the 18th Century.

The British government denies this is the case and claims it had long had a settlement on the islands prior to 1767 and has never relinquished sovereignty.

Interestingly, even Spain with the rock of Gibraltar irritatingly close, refuses to support the Argentine cause.

Whatever the complex truth, the people of the Falklands have spoken and, in the time-honoured tradition of self-determination, that should be game, set and match as far as the international community is concerned.

If the Islanders want to remain British then that’s certainly good enough for me, it’s probably good enough for the British people and it should be ammunition enough for the Foreign Office to tell the Argentines to bugger off once and for all.

I can imagine what Maggie would have said the day after such a referendum.

People can say what they like about Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies but when it came to Britain’s standing on the world stage the fact is we haven’t been taken anything like as seriously since she left Downing Street.

Her handling of the Falklands Conflict, her refusal to negotiate, to back down or to consider the possibility of defeat showed the mettle of a great Prime Minister in the mould of Winston Churchill.

What a shame her successors have all been vacillating, pale imitations of the kind of statesmanlike figures this country desperately needs.

Some will argue Maggie went to war to help her win the General Election but if you read accounts of the time you’ll see she went to war because her generation thought that standing up to a dictator was the right thing to do.

Given the effects of the global economic downturn and the every-day worries we all have the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands may seem a fairly low priority at present.

What’s more, given the fact that the Royal Navy doesn’t currently possess an aircraft carrier worthy of the name, it is a matter of some debate as to what would happen if lightning struck twice.

I fervently hope history does not repeat itself. However, I’d like to think that if push came to shove this country would defend its overseas territories just as it did 30 years ago.

I’ll leave the final word on this issue to Eric Barbour, of Waterhayes, who I interviewed last year on the 30th anniversary of the invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Eric, who was a 26-year-old with 42 Commando Royal Marines in 1982 and part of the Falklands Task Force, is unequivocal.

He said: “We saw it very much as our country protecting what was ours and protecting people who did not want their home to become part of Argentina.

“If there was another invasion I think we would be totally justified in defending the islands again.”

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday