John Whittingdale has been an MP since 1992 and worked as Margaret Thatcher's political secretary in Downing Street for the final three years of her premiership. On the thirtieth anniversary of her becoming Prime Minister, he recalls her political courage and immense achievements during eleven years in power. During the course of today we will then be posting a number of shorter Platform pieces in which a variety of political figures will share their memories of the 1979 general election.
At the Party Conference in Birmingham last year, the audience at the Guardian debate voted Margaret Thatcher as the greatest Tory hero by a huge margin. My task in proposing her in the debate against Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and Edmund Burke was an easy one. The outcome was never in doubt.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s detractors recognise her extraordinary achievement – in becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister, in winning three elections in a row, and in serving longer than any other Prime Minister of the 20th Century. Yet when she became leader of the Party in 1975, many Conservatives believed that it was an aberration that would be soon put right – a view that continued for several more years after she won the General Election in 1979. Very few foresaw the remarkable change that she would bring about, not just in Britain but across the globe.
Britain thirty years ago was viewed with mockery and scorn by the rest of the world. Much of British industry was overmanned, uncompetitive and loss-making. Inflation had reached 26% and the economy only kept going as a result of loans from the IMF. There was an impression that not just management had handed power over to the trade unions but that the Government itself took its orders from the TUC.