« Parliament to be recalled for tributes to Margaret Thatcher | Main | Thatcher tributes: The chamber to watch today is the Lords, not the Commons »

David Cameron leads Parliamentary tributes to Thatcher: "She made the political weather"

By Harry Phibbs
Follow Harry on Twitter

Powerful well judged speeches from David Cameron and Ed Miliband opened the special session of the House of Commons for tributes to Lady Thatcher.

Opening proceedings Mr Cameron said:

Those of us who grew up when Margaret Thatcher was already in Downing Street can sometimes fail to appreciate the thickness of the glass ceiling she broke through…

…from a grocer’s shop in Grantham to the highest office in the land.

At a time when it was difficult for a woman to become a Member of Parliament, almost inconceivable that one could lead the Conservative Party and, by her own reckoning, virtually impossible that a woman could become Prime Minister – she did all three.

He reminded the House of her courage in facing the threat of terrorism:

It is also right to remember that she spent her whole premiership – and indeed much of her life – under direct, personal threat from the IRA.

She lost two of her closest Parliamentary colleagues – Airey Neave and Ian Gow – to terrorism.

And, of course, she herself was only inches away from death in a terrorist attack in 1984…

…and yet it was the measure of her leadership that she shook off the dust of that attack, and in an outstanding conference speech reminded us all why democracy must never give in to terror.

David Cameron acknowledged the difficulty for some Labour MPs in participating in tributes to an opponent:

Mr Speaker, as this day of tributes begins, I would like to acknowledge that there are Members here from all parties across this House who profoundly disagreed with Mrs Thatcher…

…but who have come here today willing to pay their respects.

Let me say to those Honourable Members:

Your generosity of spirit does you credit, and speaks more eloquently than any one person can of the strength and spirit of British statesmanship and democracy.

However Mr Cameron made his own position of admiration clear:

Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable type of leader.

She said, very clearly: I am not a consensus politician, but a conviction politician.

These convictions – linked profoundly with her upbringing and values – can be summed up in a few short phrases:

Sound money. Strong defence. Liberty under the rule of law.

You shouldn’t spend what you haven’t earned.

Governments don’t create wealth – businesses do.

The clarity of these convictions was applied with great courage to the problems of the age.

And the scale of her achievements is only apparent when you look back to Britain in the 1970s.

Successive governments had failed to deal with what was beginning to be called ‘the British disease’.

Appalling industrial relations. Poor productivity. Persistently high inflation.

Though it seems absurd today, the state had got so big that it owned our airports and airline, the phones in our houses, and trucks on our roads. They even owned a removal company.

The air was thick with defeatism; there was a sense that the role of government was simply to manage decline.

Margaret Thatcher rejected this defeatism.

She had a clear view about what needed to change.

Inflation was to be controlled – not by incomes policies, but by monetary and fiscal discipline.

Industries were to be set free into the private sector.

Trade unions should be handed back to their members.

People should be able to buy their own council homes.

Success in these endeavours was never assured.

There was also a sprinkling of humour and anecdotes.

In the late 40s, before she entered politics, the then Margaret Roberts went for a job at ICI.

The personnel department rejected her application and afterwards wrote:

“This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.”

Mr Speaker, even her closest friends would agree she could be all those things…

…but the point is this: she used that conviction and resolve in the service of her country and we are the better for it.

He also included personal:

I was a Junior Party Researcher in the late 80s, and the trauma of preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions is still seared into my memory.

Twice a week, it was as if the arms of a giant octopus shook every building in Whitehall for every analysis of every problem and every answer to every question.

Mr Cameron noted that she changed not "the political landscape" adding "as Tony Blair rightly said this week."

He gave stress to the historic international accomplishments:

Today, in different corners of the world, there are millions of people who know that they owe their freedom, in part, to Margaret Thatcher.

In Kuwait, which she helped free from Saddam’s jackboot.

Across Eastern and Central Europe.

And of course, in the Falklands.

In a week from now, as people gather in London to lay Margaret Thatcher to rest, the sun will be rising over the Falklands.

And because of her courage, and the skill, bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces – it will rise again for freedom.

Mr Cameron concluded:

Mr Speaker, much has been said about the battles Margaret Thatcher fought.

She certainly did not shy from the fight – and that led to arguments, to conflict, yes: even to division.

As Winston Churchill once put it, there are some politicians who ‘make the weather’ – and Margaret Thatcher was undoubtedly one of them.

Mr Speaker, in the Members Lobby of the House of Commons there are rightly four statues.

Lloyd George – who gave us the welfare state.

Winston Churchill – who gave us victory in war.

Clement Attlee – who gave us the NHS.

And Margaret Thatcher – who rescued our country from post-war decline.

They say that cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Well in 1979 came the hour, and came The Lady.

She made the political weather.

She made history.

And let this be her epitaph: that she made Britain great again.

In Ed Miliband's speech there was reference to the importance Lady Thatcher gave to ideas:

Having broken so many conventions as a woman, it can’t be a coincidence that she was someone who in so many other areas of life was willing to take on the established orthodoxies.

Margaret Thatcher’s ability to overcome every obstacle in her path is just one measure of her personal strength.

And that takes me to her style of politics.

You can disagree with Margaret Thatcher.

But it is important to understand the kind of political leader she was.

What was unusual, was that she sought to be rooted in people’s daily lives, but she also believed that ideology mattered.

Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life.

And while she never would have claimed to be, or wanted to be seen as, an intellectual, she believed, and she showed, that ideas matter in politics.

In 1945 Mr Speaker, before the end of the War, she bought a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. There is even a story that she suggested that Conservative Central Office distribute it in the 1945 campaign.

She said, "it left a permanent mark on my political character."

And nobody can grasp Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, and Thatcherism, without also appreciating the ideas that were its foundation.

And the way in which they departed from the prevailing consensus of the time.

In typical home-spun style, on breakfast TV she said this in 1995:

"Consensus doesn’t give you any direction. It is like mixing all the constituent ingredients together and not coming out with a cake...Democracy is about the people being given a choice."

It was that approach that enabled her to define the politics of a whole generation and influence the politics of generations to come.

Mr Miliband said she had been right to reduce state ownership in certain areas (noting that "the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles Hoteland to go to war in the Falklands but he added:

In mining areas, like the one I represent, communities felt angry and abandoned.

Gay and lesbian people felt stigmatised by measures like section 28, which today’s Conservative Party has rightly repudiated.

And it was no accident that when he became leader of the Conservative Party, the Right Hon Member for Chingford wrote a pamphlet, called  There is Such a Thing as Society.

And on the world stage, as this Prime Minister rightly said in 2006, when he was Leader of the Opposition, she made the wrong judgement about Nelson Mandela and about sanctions in South Africa.

He concluded:

On previous occasions, we have come to this House to remember the extraordinary Prime Ministers who have served our nation.

Today, we also remember a Prime Minister who defined her age.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.