Maggie’s Legacy: Divisive Thatcher towers over Britain’s Tory race
Two people are running for the post of Britain’s next prime minister, but a third presence towers above the competition: Margaret Thatcher.
The late former Prime Minister dominated Britain in the 1980s and has left a rich and controversial legacy. Critics see her as an unrelenting ideologist whose free-market policies have torn social ties and gutted the country’s industrial communities. But for the ruling Conservative Party, Thatcher is an icon, an inspiration and the presiding spirit that has made Britain fit for modernity.
In the race to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and prime minister, both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak claim to embody the values of Thatcher, who died in 2013 at the age of 87.
Wondering who was Britain’s greatest Prime Minister? Both candidates say Thatcher without hesitation. Sunak delivered a key speech in Grantham, the late leader’s hometown, and proclaimed himself a supporter of “healthy Thatcherism” while his wife and children took selfies in front of the bronze statue of the Iron Lady.
Truss discusses her own humble origins, invites comparisons to the grocer Thatcher’s daughter, and adopts poses and outfits – bold blue dresses, tie-neck blouses – that reflect the unmistakable style of Britain’s first female Prime Minister.
Historian Richard Vinen of King’s College London says Truss is an “Instagram Thatcher”.
Victoria Honeyman, Associate Professor of British Politics at the University of Leeds, says Thatcher is “a talisman” for Conservatives. Robert Saunders, a historian of modern Britain at Queen Mary University of London, believes that “she has become a mythical creature”.
“Like Thor’s hammer, Thatcher’s purse can bestow divine powers upon those deemed worthy to lift it,” Saunders wrote on the Unherd website.
In a way, the Thatcher fixation is easy to explain. She led the Conservatives to three consecutive electoral victories and was never defeated at the ballot box. Like Johnson, she was ultimately overthrown by her own party, which was ousted in 1990 after 11 years in power.
“Every Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher has failed,” said Vinen, author of Thatcher’s Britain.
John Major lost party power in 1997 and the three leaders after him kept the Tories in opposition. Prime Minister David Cameron banked on a 2016 referendum that led Britain out of the European Union against its will. His successor, Theresa May, was defeated by the Brexit infighting, and Johnson was booted out by Conservative lawmakers after months of ethics scandals.
Thatcher’s decade in power, through war and peace, boom and bust, also offers bounty for acolytes to choose from. She was a war leader who defeated Argentina around the Falkland Islands, a democrat who opposed the Soviet Union and saw the end of the Cold War, an anti-union capitalist who unleashed the power of financial markets.
“You can basically choose what you want,” says Honeyman.
This selective memory is at work when today’s predominantly pro-Brexit Conservatives say Thatcher supported the decision to leave the EU. Vinen says “it’s almost sacrilegious” to point this out, but “Thatcher was actually pro-European for most of her tenure.”
Thatcher’s economic legacy is also disputed. Truss and Sunak both claim to offer Thatcherian economics, but their policies are very different. Truss says she will immediately increase borrowing and cut taxes to ease Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, while Sunak says it’s important to get the country’s soaring inflation rate under control first.
Both can point to decisions Thatcher made in support of her stance, although Vinen believes Sunak’s anti-inflation focus is economically closer to Thatcher’s.
“She (didn’t) believe that if you didn’t cut spending, you could cut taxes,” he said.
Britain’s new leader will be elected by some 180,000 Conservative Party members, many of whom regard Thatcher as a heroine. Millions of other British voters remember her differently.
Thatcher privatized state-owned industries, sold council housing and defeated Britain’s coal miners after a bitter year-long strike. Under their leadership, industries were shut down and millions of people out of work, especially in the north of England.
Johnson, whose Conservative hero is more Winston Churchill than Thatcher, secured a major electoral victory in 2019, winning over voters in the post-industrial cities of northern England who had never previously considered supporting the Conservatives.
Honeyman said Johnson’s successors would do well not to eulogize Thatcher too loudly if they hope to hold on to those northern districts where people are still talking about closing factories and mines, “and the impact it’s having on their… had communities, across the way it broke people’s lives.”
“It’s not ancient history for some of these people,” she said. “This is their lived experience.”
Those memories aren’t as vivid for the 47-year-old Truss, who was a teenager when Thatcher left office. Sunak, now 42, was just 10 years old in 1990.
But 84-year-old Conservative veteran Norman Fowler, who served in Thatcher’s government and is now Speaker of the House of Lords, warned candidates against “overdoing” their worship of the Iron Lady.
“I was in her cabinet, shadowy and real, for 15 years,” Fowler told Times Radio. “Even I wouldn’t say she was perfect in every way. And that’s why the party doesn’t have to follow her completely. So I would let it rest.”
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