With the news yesterday of the death of Margaret Thatcher there has been much comment in the media and on social media regarding her life, her time in office and her legacy. Some of it measured, much of it polarised in one camp or another.
My view of her legacy is mixed. I grew up in a family and extended family who hated her, her politics and what she stood for. So that was my background. But as I have learned more over the years and read various biographies of the time (not least her own) I have come to a more nuanced view. I still think she did a fair bit of harm but there was some good too.
In the weeks, months and years to come there will be plenty of time to look critically at her legacy but in the febrile atmosphere of the next few days following her death and in advance of the funeral I would rather stay away from that.
Instead, here are three things that I think are positive results of her time in office:
- Privatisation of the telecoms industry. At the time there was a feeling on the left that privatising state owned services like British Telecom was "selling off the family silver". But the fact that it could take weeks or months to get a phone line installed when it was owned and run by the General Post Office and the woeful lack of any sort of competition meant that the industry was stagnating. Allowing the market in took what appeared to be a natural monopoly and opened it up to market forces which allowed innovation and competition to hugely improve the available services. It's not perfect of course but I am certain it is much much better than what would have happened had it have been state owned. It is very telling that no serious politician these days would ever dream of suggesting that this industry be taken back into state ownership. Unlike some of the other privatisations the success of this one is accepted across the political spectrum. On a personal level this policy directly affected me. For the first 6 years of my career after graduating I worked for telecoms companies writing and testing software for exchanges and later mobile systems. I suspect my career would have taken a very different path had there not been such an open telecoms market in 1995.
- Some of the reforms of Trade Unions. The fact that votes to go out on strike could be executed via a show of hands rather than a secret ballot was an absurd legacy of a bygone era and left the system open to potential intimidation. Also the fact that members who did not back the majority decision could be disciplined was bizarre and needed to be reformed. The closed shop system was also an unfair imposition on individual rights and was rightly abolished. It is again telling that the Labour party in government did not do much to roll back any of the Thatcher union reforms. They tacitly accepted that many of them were long overdue. It is another legacy of the Thatcher years that has stuck and changed the political centre of gravity probably permanently.
- She broke the glass ceiling. It's easy to forget that she was the first and so far only female Prime Minister. The joke that she was more masculine than many of her contemporaries and predecessors/successors obscures that fact. She showed that with skill and determination women can achieve the highest elected office in the land. She inspired successive generations of women across all political parties. For this alone she would have remained an important historical figure even without all the other reasons.