THE distinctive contribution Margaret Thatcher made to British politics was to make the whole country more competitive, more market-orientated and readier to understand that we owed our standard of living to our capacity to sell our goods and services in world markets. We had fallen behind, our productivity was not as high as it needed to be, and some trade union practices were costly and disruptive.
The link Thatcher made between becoming more competitive and making trade union decisions democratic, in terms of their own membership, was a powerful combination. On this agenda the newly-created Social Democratic Party (of which I was a co-founder) gave her important support – not so much in voting in the House of Commons (which she could manage without), but in creating an atmosphere that these changes were not just Tory dogma, but necessary and indeed vital.
David Cameron has said she saved the country. But that is absurd. Our economic performance was improving after Britain’s IMF bailout in 1976 and Labour’s Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey were ready to accept monetary discipline. But reform of the unions and support for a more competitive economy would have been difficult for Labour to champion. It was the direction of travel for a Callaghan government, but after the Winter of Discontent it was not deliverable without a new government and a fresh mandate.
Of course, Thatcher’s strengths and her weaknesses, as with most of us, have to be seen as one. She was insensitive to those people who did not have the mental or physical strength to be achievers in her sense of the term. She did not value the NHS sufficiently, or have the depth of understanding of that wider society which has given Britain its historic stability and underlying compassion. But she was, with Clement Attlee, one of the two great radical Prime Ministers in the post-war period and, in coming to that position as the first female Prime Minister, she showed courage and determination and overcame prejudice – not least that associated in some parts of the Conservative Party with her more humble upbringing.
Lord David Owen is a former foreign secretary, and a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party.