Liam Fox MP: Thatcher. She turned the Conservative Party from a loser into a world champion.
Dr Liam Fox is Conservative MP for North Somerset. Follow Liam on Twitter.
Yesterday we were robbed of one of the great historic figures of our era. It was a reminder that whatever our towering prominence in our own time, our timescale is finite. Given her deep religious devotion Margaret Thatcher would have felt at home with this narrative, given her strong faith and innate humility. For those of us who knew her well , time will bring an even greater resonance to the honour we feel at this moment. There will be an enormous debate about her historic significance to this country and to the wider world. History will lend enormous weight to her great significance and her transformational influence on the country she led and its effect on global events.
As a former Chairman of the Conservative party I have tried to separate the influence that she had on her party and that which she had on her country. This is, ultimately , an impossible task because Margaret Thatcher, the woman and the Conservative, are inextricably bound to Margaret Thatcher the national leader and global statesman.
I joined the Conservative party in the late 1970s when it was clear that both the corporatist approach of the Heath government of the early 1970s, and the union – appeasing approach of the Wilson – Callahan era were dooming Britain to the prospect of managed decline at best. As a product of Europe’s second-biggest comprehensive school and a family where both grandparents had been miners, I saw Margaret Thatcher as a role model for those who wanted to break through the traditional social barriers where individual talent took precedent over social antecedents. It is hard for today’s younger voters to understand exactly what this meant in an era when social rigidity was infinitely greater than today. The millions of British voters who saw the same thing would follow this brave and intelligent woman through to 3 record winning British general elections. This was no accident. Despised by what she regularly characterised as “the establishment”, she overcame the condescension of those who believe that a grocer’s daughter could never become prime minister, those who believed that this was a role for men only and the male chauvinism of the Labour Party and the trade unions who mocked her 1979 victory on the basis that “she would never be allowed to govern”.
It is easy in retrospect to believe that her victories were preordained, but this is to fail to understand just how her courage, and the intellectual brilliance of Sir Keith Joseph, transformed both the fortunes of the Conservative party and the United Kingdom. The Thatcher revolution was primarily intellectual, although it was accompanied by a particularly skilful manipulation of the media that has seldom been bettered to this day. It is hard to describe accurately the risks she took in confronting the entire conventional wisdom of her time, an era that believed in compromise rather than principle and tactics before strategy.
The Conservative victory in 1979 was a seminal moment in British post-war history. It challenged the consensus that had existed since the Attlee government, accommodated by Churchill, Attlee, MacMillan and Heath. She believed that the Conservative party was the vehicle through which Britain would achieve its renaissance, based on free market principles, the belief in liberty, freedom and the rule of law and underpinned by the ability of the British people to achieve great things when freed from the dead hand of the state. Her courage inside the Conservative party cannot be understated either. From the outset she was undermined, and attacked, by those who were most comfortable with the cosy post-war consensus that promised little more than managed national decline and those who saw themselves as her social superiors, waiting for the moment when this inconvenient woman could be replaced. Fortunately for the British people, they were all to be disappointed. The Geoffrey Howe budget of 1982 was an intellectual turning point, shocking the self appointed intelligentsia, including the current governor of the Bank of England (who was one of the economists who wrote to the Times in outraged terms), but putting the country on a sustainable economic footing. Her courage in the prosecution of the Falklands War, was phenomenal. Not only were the commentariat overflowing with praise and admiration (something we have almost consigned to history), not only was financial support flooding in to support an obvious winner but many people who had never thought of voting Conservative before were willing to give their support at the ballot box or become party activists. When the added attractions of home ownership and wider share ownership were added to this mix, the Conservative party not only felt self confident but was infused with a sense of moral purpose. People wanted to be associated with the Conservative Party and itbecame the dominant force in shaping economic and social reform well outside the borders of the United Kingdom.
Of course, it is dangerous for any party to rewrite its own history. Margaret Thatcher was brave, intuitive and patriotic but she was also a cautious politician. On one hand, she would say that “successful politicians do not move to the political centre, they move the political centre to them”. On the other, she was generally unwilling to open up more than one political front at any one time, concentrating her considerable political energy on one target.
She turned the Conservative party from just another participant in the lowest common denominator politics of Britain in the 1970s into a world champion. It was not done without cost, socially or economically, although one of my favourite of her many mantras was that “it doesn’t matter how much people who will never vote for you don’t like it” as long as “you create a critical mass with those who believe what you believe to be right”.
It was a privilege and an honour to know Margaret Thatcher. She would have been humbled by the tributes paid to her today, however richly deserved. She never wanted to be popular but was always keen to be respected. If there is an accolade to which she would have paid great heed it would have been the often repeated view on the doorstep that “you might not have liked Margaret Thatcher but you always knew where she stood. She always believed in her country”.
That, surely, is what our party is for.