The Iron Lady: What We Learned From Thatcher's Decade

Following the first screening of Meryl Streep's Thatcher biopic, Iron Lady, here's a look back at the ruthless, competitive and money driven Eighties - a decade that belonged to Thatcher more than anyone.
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'It’s a funny old world.’ Margaret Thatcher’s words to her cabinet on the morning of 22 November 1990, shortly before she went to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen of her resignation, were perhaps a little lacking in gravitas, a little more banal than one might have hoped for on such an historic occasion. But she did have a point. She had won 57 per cent of the votes cast in the first leadership ballot and yet she had been forced out of the contest, while her challenger lived to fight again.

The union of woman and office that the British electorate had joined together had been put asunder by her own colleagues. It was not unreasonable to reflect that British politics is indeed a funny old world. It is also a ruthless one, particularly within the Conservative Party. Much was made in later years of the unenviable position of Michael Heseltine: evidence, it was said, that he who wields the knife never wears the crown, though of course he was just following her example. It was she who had fatally stabbed Edward Heath and then succeeded to the throne. Perhaps the real moral was that she who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

Her consolation should have been that her work over the previous ten and a half years had created a legacy that would be unassailable, or would at the very least outlive her. The signs, however, were not immediately encouraging, as the second Thatcherite recession began to see even her favourites struggle. Saatchi & Saatchi, who had made their name as her advertising agency of choice, found themselves making a loss of nearly £60 million in 1989. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, weighed down by the expansion into Sky Television and the Fox network in America and teetering on the brink of financial collapse in 1990, only just succeeded in rescheduling its debts in time to ensure its survival. And in 1992 the company that owned One Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands, seen by many as the physical symbol of the Thatcherite economic miracle, filed for bankruptcy.

Certain achievements were undeniable. It was unlikely the trade unions would ever regain the same influence over political decision-making that they had enjoyed in the 1970s; the move away from state-ownership of industry, save in certain narrowly defined areas, would probably not be seriously challenged; the sale of council housing had affected the lives of millions and transformed the property market; the battle to change the emphasis from income tax to indirect taxation had been comprehensively won; local councils lost many of their powers, and few dared hope central government might offer to return them. Even in these areas, however, there was a suspicion that Thatcherism hadn’t been quite so radical as it might have been in pursuit of its dream of a property-owning, share-owning democracy.

Had council housing been given away to those tenants who had paid twenty years of rent, had shares in the privatized state industries been distributed free to all adults in the country, had the democratic principles enforced on trade unions been equally applied to industry – all ideas that were floated on the right during the 1980s – then perhaps Thatcherism might not have been so divisive, might not have bequeathed a Britain in which a whole stratum of society was effectively written off. Internationally, her proudest boasts were that she had been the first Western leader to embrace Mikhail Gorbachev, thereby helping to facilitate the rapprochement between America and the Soviet Union, and had been the first major politician anywhere to identify the dangers of climate change. She had also brought into being the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which seemed for a while as though it were a major step towards peace in Northern Ireland, though it was already proving to be of little lasting significance.

The semi-detached attitude towards the European Community was similarly fragile, though her insistence in her Bruges speech that Europe did not end at the borders of Germany was influential. Nor did her successors always adhere to the principle of self-determination that she espoused in the wake of the 1983 American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada: ‘Many people in many countries would love to be free of communism, but that doesn’t mean to say we can just walk into them and say now you are free.’

"It was she who had fatally stabbed Edward Heath and then succeeded to the throne. Perhaps the real moral was that she who lives by the sword dies by the sword."

Somewhat more nebulously, the Thatcherite attacks on the establishment – which sometimes appeared to be more concerned with the breaking of eggs than with the making of omelettes – helped produce a national culture that would go on to change the public’s perceptions of those in power, even of politicians themselves. A layer of privilege, of expectation by birth, was removed in pursuit of a meritocracy. In the 1960s Britain congratulated itself on creating a new showbusiness aristocracy of pop stars and photographers, designers and hairdressers; in the 1980s, the same social mobility spread to business and industry, if not so noticeably to the professions. And then there was the recapturing of the Falkland Islands, a war that was charged for many with great symbolic significance.

In her final Commons appearance as prime minister, Thatcher talked about how it had reaffirmed ‘a sense of this country’s destiny, the centuries of history and experience which ensure that when principles have to be defended, when good has to be upheld, when evil has to be overcome, then Britain will take up arms’. This revival of one of Britain’s most cherished myths was already, by the time of her departure, starting to wane, but its impact at the time was considerable. Thatcher made what most considered was the right judgement in response to the invasion of British territory, and the armed forces proved that here was at least one national institution that could be counted on in a crisis. The political significance of the war could be, and often was, overstated – the 1983 election was not won simply on the Falklands factor – but the victory in the South Atlantic did have a psychological impact on much of the country.

By any conventional evaluation, her term in office had been far from impressive. Unemployment was much higher when she left than when she arrived, inflation never stabilized and was now increasing, and GDP had grown by an average of just 1.8 per cent per annum, little of that in the area of manufacturing (in the dark days of the 1970s, the average rise had been 2.4 per cent). Wealth inequality had increased substantially, with a fall in the income of the poorest 10 per cent of society, and there were 60 per cent more people dependent on the state for their income than in 1979.

Even taxation, as a share of GDP, had increased. ‘I sometimes have considerable anxieties about Thatcherism,’ wrote Larry Lamb, ten years after urging Sun readers to vote Conservative, and he cited not only the economic factors but also the way in which ‘the quality of life, especially in our inner cities, is diminished.’ But the Thatcherite agenda had never really sought to be judged by such mundane measures. ‘What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?’ she had demanded rhetorically in the early days of her premiership, spurning those who lacked the force of her convictions. She saw her work as a vocation, not hesitating to compare it to the greatest of all callings: ‘Do you think you would ever have heard of Christianity if the apostles had gone out and said, “I believe in consensus”?’

Her crusade had aimed at the eradication of socialism in Britain, and here she and her supporters were quick to claim victory. In 1988 Woodrow Wyatt celebrated her creation of a political landscape in which ‘the two political parties, if they are to alternate, have to be much more like the Republican Party and the Democrats in America’. Nicholas Ridley agreed: ‘She forced the political debate in Britain onto the ground of who can best run a market economy in Britain; it is no longer about whether we have a market economy or a socialist one.’ And perhaps this was indeed her most significant achievement; whoever were the winners in the 1980s, the outright losers were clearly the old left in all its forms, whether the parliamentary socialism of Tony Benn, the union militancy of Arthur Scargill or the town-hall Trotskyism of Derek Hatton.

How much of this was her doing, however, was more questionable. Had the Labour Party in 1981 chosen as its leader Denis Healey rather than Michael Foot, and the SDP not therefore been formed, the probability is that she would have served only one term, replaced by a centre-left government that would have reached an accommodation with the unions and never embarked upon the privatization of state industries. Much of the damage done to socialism might actually be seen as the work of the Labour left, suffering from the loss of a sense of priorities.

Or perhaps it could be seen as the result of the SDP splitting the anti-Thatcher vote. And it could be argued that the SDP were the real victors of the ideological struggles of the 1980s. The party contested its last general election in 1987, but twenty years later, as the two ex-public schoolboys Tony Blair and David Cameron faced each other over the despatch boxes at prime minister’s questions, itwas hard not to be reminded of the final scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with both parties now looking like nothing so much as the gang of four reborn.

Much of the Limehouse Declaration that had launched the SDP back in 1981 could quite easily have been written by either of these leaders, in terms of both its philosophy and its vagueness: "We want to create an open, classless and more equal society, one which rejects ugly prejudices based upon sex, race or religion . . . We want more, not less, radical change in our society, but with a greater stability of direction . . .We want Britain to play a full and constructive role within the framework of the European Community, NATO, the United Nations and the Commonwealth".

‘I sometimes have considerable anxieties about Thatcherism,’ wrote Larry Lamb, ten years after urging Sun readers to vote Conservative.'

Such sentiments became almost universal at Westminster in the later years of Thatcher’s life, but it was hard to see her ever choosing to utter them. ‘Our epitaph might be that we had saved the Labour Party,’ noted David Owen as early as 1982, adding there were worse fates than that. The former members of the SDP could make a reasonable claim not only to have achieved that objective, but also to have shaped the immediate future of British politics.

Some of that influence was already apparent by the time of Thatcher’s fall. It became unmistakable after the 1992 general election in which John Major confounded the opinion polls and led the Conservative Party to a shock victory, recording the largest number of votes ever given to a British party in a single election. When Thatcher came to publish her memoirs in 1993, she could talk about James Callaghan’s administration as ‘the last Labour government and perhaps the last ever’, without it seeming too absurd a comment. For if Labour couldn’t win in the depths of a recession that could hardly be blamed on anyone but the incumbent government, would it ever be able to win again?

Neil Kinnock responded to the disappointment by stepping down as leader, having achieved in his eight and a half years everything but power. As a Labour leader, he had been more effective than many of his predecessors; he had, above all, genuinely led the party, persuading it to go down the path he had chosen, despite its initial reluctance, and had ensured its survival by neutralizing the threat of the third party. But he had never convinced the electorate that he was capable of taking the final step into Downing Street.

The effect of the 1992 defeat was debilitating to a generation of the left. ‘I had always known it was impossible for one person to change the world on their own,’ wrote John O’Farrell in his best-selling memoir of Labour’s opposition years, Things Can Only Get Better. ‘But I felt so bitter about the outcome of the 1992 election that I stopped particularly trying.’ He was thirty years old and he retreated from activism, concentrating on his family and revelling in his first taste of bacon after ten years of political vegetarianism. (In Fever Pitch, the model for all such memoirs of the era, Nick Hornby, some five years older, had recorded an analogous rite of passage as he reached his thirties, in his case the purchase of a season ticket
for the seated part of Arsenal’s Highbury stadium, leaving behind his days on the terraces.)

O’Farrell’s experience, while not entirely typical – for comparatively few were, or ever had been, political activists – did represent the broad trajectory of many who had benefited from what looked in retrospect like the golden age of being a student. More numerous than ever before, thanks to the demographic boom at the turn of the 1960s and to the expansion of tertiary education, students in the early years of Thatcherism were also more comfortable than their counterparts have been since, benefiting from the student grant scheme that was soon to disappear.

That generation had passed through early adulthood under Thatcher’s premiership and its members were now emerging as the coming men and women in politics, business, the media, the arts and education. This was where the influence of Thatcherism needed to be felt if her legacy was to be secured. And certain elements were indeed in evidence: home ownership had become the norm, trade union embership was unusual in the private sector, few now defined themselves as socialist – these things had become accepted as part of the order of things. The phrase ‘a planned economy’ had all but disappeared from the language.

Just as noticeable, however, was the acceptance of the new left morality that had been championed by the likes of the GLC, the single-issue campaigners and the alternative comedians. Sexism, racism and what was now known as homophobia (but had for a while been termed heterosexism) were seen as taboos, while lip-service at least was essential on environmental matters. In 1989 Austin Mitchell wrote that Labour had become: ‘A mass party without members, an ideological crusade without an agreed ideology, a people’s party cut off from the people.’ Recognising the void where its heart had been, it adopted the new left agenda with enthusiasm and relief, and became increasingly confident in its espousal of what had been identity politics, albeit now in a much less strident and confrontational form than before.

And it was not merely the Labour Party. In 1994 Edwina Currie tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill seeking the equalization of the heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent; the amendment was defeated, but an interim compromise reached and the age for sex between gay men was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen. Many of the issues that had been so derided when floated by the new left became mainstream within a couple of decades, with, for example, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, the Civil Partnership Act of 2004, the introduction of more social hours for Commons sittings in an attempt to entice more women into parliament.

Even the question of language was resolved on the left’s terms, a development symbolized in 2009 when Carol Thatcher, daughter of the former prime minister, was removed from working on the BBC programme The One Show because she had compared a black tennis-player’s hairstyle to that of a golliwog in a backstage conversation. Cultural norms had changed. The onward march of liberalism turned out to have suffered only temporary set-backs in the middle of the decade and was now firmly back on course; despite extreme hostility from the prime minister, the permissive 1960s virtues of sex and drugs and general tolerance had survived to infect a new generation.

Paradoxically, it was in the popular arts, an area where the government had come under constant attack through the 1980s, that this combination of tolerance and Thatcherism was most visible. It was here that liberal values had been defended most effectively – whether in alternative comedy, pop music, detective fiction or television – but here too that business ethics were becoming increasingly visible. The Thatcher-approved concept of self-employment could be seen, for example, in the way that the smarter comedians launched their own production companies, starting with Talkback Productions, founded by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones in 1981, and Hat Trick, founded by Rory McGrath and Jimmy Mulville in 1986.

Entrepreneurialism, with a slight nod to the do-it-yourself ethos of punk, was now seen as standard in the creative industries. The same phenomenon could be found in what had previously been considered the more elite world of the visual arts: the end of the decade saw the first stirrings of what would become known as the Young British Artists, as the likes of Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas emerged as self-promoting populist stars; by 1991, when Channel 4 began its sponsorship of the Turner Prize, exhibitions had become newsworthy events even for the tabloids.

There was, in this context, a certain symbolism in the fact that the most influential pop act of the last years of the Thatcherite era was the band Soul II Soul, another project that had benefited from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by Norman Tebbit.

There was, in this context, a certain symbolism in the fact that the most influential pop act of the last years of the Thatcherite era was the band Soul II Soul, another project that had benefited from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by Norman Tebbit. Led by the producer Jazzie B, Soul II Soul started out as a sound system, DJing at parties and then starting to run clubs, before diversifying into making clothes and jewellery and opening their own retail outlets. The idea of creating their own music, actually launching a band, was something of a late addition to an already flourishing north London empire, but it was rapidly successful, with hits like ‘Keep on Moving’ and ‘Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)’ reinventing soul just when it seemed destined to decline into mechanical R&B. The latter single spent four weeks at No. 1 in 1989 at a time when the charts were not noticeably adventurous – it was preceded and succeeded at No. 1 by records from Jason Donovan and Sonia, both Stock Aitken and Waterman productions – and even made the top five in America.

But unlike, say, Jerry Dammers who had displayed similar entrepreneurial abilities in building the 2 Tone label at the start of the decade, Jazzie B was much more prepared to acknowledge that what he had achieved was part of the Thatcherite agenda. ‘For me, Margaret Thatcher was quite important, because she helped to legitimize exactly what we were doing,’ he recalled in a 2009 interview. ‘Her whole ethos was about you being more enterprising and getting on with it.’ And, he reflected: ‘The whole of Britain was going through change. We needed a new direction, so coming through the ’80s with Maggie in front, as it were, wasn’t a bad thing for us. Some of us prospered.’ He was unusual only in his honesty.

Depending on one’s taste and perspective, then, one could look at the battleground of the 1980s and conclude that the spoils belonged to Margaret Thatcher or David Owen, Norman Tebbit or Ken Livingstone. No ideology had triumphed, and it could even be argued that ideology itself was amongst the fatalities: ‘As I grow older,’ reflected Tony Benn in 2009, ‘I have reached the conclusion that issues unite people, whereas ideologies divide them.’ It had been a big decade, a time when rival philosophies fought for the soul of the nation, seeking to provide the solution to the crises of the 1970s. And yet, out of the most dogmatic and doctrinaire period in modern British history had come a characteristically British muddle, in which many could point to successes, but none could claim outright victory.

That, of course, was far from the wishes of most of those involved, and particularly of Thatcher herself, who abhorred muddle and compromise above all else. It was, however, ultimately her decade. She stamped her image upon it in a way that few other politicians have ever achieved. The immediate associations conjured up by the mention of any other post-war decade do not centre on political figures, but the 1980s remain the Thatcher decade, for those who idolised her as the greatest leader since Winston Churchill, for those in whom she inspired an undying hatred, and for the millions who saw her as either a mixed blessing or a necessary evil. ‘I suppose,’ reflected her husband Denis gloomily in January 1991, ‘they will be regarded as the disastrous Thatcher years.’

This is an extract from 'Rejoice, Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s' by Alwyn Turner (Aurum). To buy a copy click here

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