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Nick Wood: The physical, intellectual and moral courage of Margaret Thatcher

Nick Wood is former Head of Communications for the Conservative Party and now runs Media Intelligence Partners.

Screen shot 2013-04-09 at 18.57.56Leaders of serious countries like Britain need many qualities to leave their mark on history. Intelligence, energy, imagination, a strong set of core beliefs and  the ability to build and manage a talented team are just some. But courage is the most precious of all. And Margaret Thatcher had courage in spades.

Physical courage obviously. Two of her closest political allies, Airey Neave and Ian Gow, were assassinated by Republican terrorists, one at the beginning of her time in office and the other at the end. Mrs Thatcher herself narrowly escaped death at their hands in the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984.

Hard to credit it now but the Conservative Party conference proceeded uninterrupted. Five people were dead and 31 injured; the hotel was in ruins; Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit was painstakingly extricated from the rubble in full view of the world's cameras, Tebbit's wife Margaret was crippled for life. But Mrs Thatcher insisted that the show must go on, ensuring that it started at 9.30 am prompt that Friday morning.

Nor did she waste too many words on her would-be assassins. In three defiant but crisp paragraphs, Mrs Thatcher condemned the "outrage" of this attempt to "cripple Her Majesty's democractically-elected Government" and insisted that the terrorists would always fail. And then it was time for "business as usual".

But for all her physical courage and amazing resilience, it was her intellectual courage that marked her out from the ordinary run of politicians. Opinion polls and focus groups might have said one thing, but Mrs Thatcher stuck to her course throughout her time in Downing Street.

In March 1981, Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor, took a sledge-hammer to Keynesian orthodoxy, raising taxes by a staggering £4 billion and slashing borrowing, so paving the way for a cut in interest rates and a savage squeeze on inflation. The establishment response was equally savage. Some 364 leading economists signed a letter to The Times declaring that such measures in the teeth of a recession had no basis in economic theory or evidence and jeopardised the country's political and social stability.

Two years later Mrs Thatcher won the general election with a majority of 144 – the biggest Tory win since the war.

But it was not just in the economic sphere that Mrs Thatcher defied the soggy, corporatist and defeatist consensus of the 1970s and early 80s. The 1974 election had been fought around the theme of "Who governs Britain", and by the late 70s it seemed that the answer was no-one – at least no one unless they had the approval of the Trades Union Congress.

It is hard to believe it now, but then it seemed that almost nothing could be done without the assent of the union barons, regularly trooping into No 10 to issue their demands and then retiring to consult their benighted executives. Slowly but surely, by making union decisions dependent on the democratic will of their members, Mrs Thatcher released the trade union grip on the wind-pipe of the nation.

The Russians made her in a sense, branding her the Iron Lady. But it was she and Ronald Reagan who triumphed so comprehensively in the Cold War. With Soviet SS-20 missiles aimed at targets across the UK, Labour and the Liberals, with their fellow travellers in the BBC were howling for unilateral disarmament and a climbdown in the face of the Soviet threat. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan responded by upping the ante, stationing Cruise and Pershing missiles in the UK and Western Europe. Less than a decade later the Berlin Wall was a museum piece and the Soviet empire lay in ruins.

Then there was the Falklands. Mrs Thatcher didn't flannel; she didn't negotiate; she didn't waste time pleading with the UN; she sank Argentina's biggest battleship. She assembled a taskforce, despite dire predictions much amplified by the BBC that it would be dashed to pieces, and she told it to go and get the islands back. A short and horrifying war ensued but within a few weeks the union flag was flying over Port Stanley again. Mrs Thatcher's determination to do what was right and just had been vindicated again.

All this and much more took courage – moral and intellectual. Alone among politicians of the modern age, she appeared to care little about short-term popularity and what the press and the public thought of her. She was a leader not a follower. She did not bow down before the metropolitan liberal consensus. She defied it when she thought it was wrong, she argued her case vehemently, and more often than not she was proved right.

Mrs Thatcher was much reviled in her time. She was probably more hated than loved. But she could always console herself with the thought that away from the Westminster village, there were millions of ordinary people who both admired her and believed in her.  She never took the path of least resistance. Today's generation of political leaders have much to learn from her.


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