Most Influential Women

The Lady Was Not For Turning: Baroness Margaret Thatcher

Several years ago, we invited some of the most successful and prominent women in Malaysia to write about the women who most inspired them – from the world of government, politics, business, arts and culture. Those contributions were then published in our lifestyle publication PASSIONS.

Though seven years have passed since then, the stories of these women and how they have influenced and inspired not only our contributors but so many other women remain as relevant as ever. 

Because, to paraphrase what our CEO Dato’ Beatrice Nirmala wrote in her Editorial then, by using their blood, sweat and tears to rise to the top of their game, these women squashed any arguments against what women can or cannot do.

And we start off with Dato’ Beatrice’s heartfelt tribute to the woman who saved Britain and inspired the world. The one and only Iron Lady – Margaret Thatcher

“You cannot enrich the poor by impoverishing the rich. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

This was the very essence of Margaret Thatcher’s political ethos. Why then is Abraham Lincoln held in such reverence and Margaret Thatcher, considered the most outstanding peacetime leader of the 20th century, reviled by so many? It is because, in my opinion, she forced a nation to grow up – to cut the umbilical cord, wean off the milk, to stand on its own two feet… and walk and to keep walking, without crutches. She was a meteor of change, and the rude jolting out of one’s complacency, I suspect, may have a lot to do with the dislike. More probably it was because she never went out on a limb trying to be popular. “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at anytime, and would achieve nothing,” she famously said.

I guess the reason why I choose Margaret Thatcher as my most admired woman is because I have so much in common with her. I am a Physicist, whereas she was a Chemist. We have both undertaken roles far different than what we were groomed for. We are both straight talking women, unashamedly capitalist, stubborn, headstrong, tire out the people we work with by driving them hard, demanding the best from everyone and horribly confident of whatever we do (even if we are wrong). But that is about as close I will ever get to being like Margaret Thatcher. She went out and changed a nation, and the world will always remember Thatcherism, and a strong-willed woman with superhuman courage who was brilliant and unflinching in the face of uncalled for and unnecessary ridicule and criticism from lesser men and women, who did not, and could never, give as much, or try as hard.

I, on the other hand, will remain comfortably unknown, and undertake this essay to once and for all remove – at least from my mind – all the questions and doubts people have asked about Maggie T. Who was the real Margaret Thatcher? Was she good or bad? Was she a National Hero or a Milk Snatcher? My answer is an unapologetic “National Hero.” So please bear with me, for to understand Maggie’s legacy is to understand the huge multi-faceted volume of untiring work she did, in all of her three terms, to bring about that meteor of change. One just cannot sum in up in a few paragraphs. Thats like condensing a mountain into my teaspoon. You will have to read, and at the end of my essay, if I have changed your mind for the better about her, it will be my best work yet. This is the least I can do for the greatest leader of our times, and the one most misunderstood, and unappreciated.

Britain before Thatcher was a dispirited, overmanned, under-managed, union-bullied, poorly-performing, benefit-demanding, thoroughly bureaucratised, class-ridden society. Of 25 million employed, almost 30% were in the public sector. The subsidies (GBP4.6 billion) and borrowings (GBP2.5 billion) of the nationalised industries in 1979 were almost equal to the cost of servicing the national debt (GBP8.4 billion).

Britain had the lowest growth of productivity of any major industrial economy at that time, with an eight-fold increase in strikes compared with the 1930s. National per capita income – 40% above the West European average in the late 1950s – was below average by 1979.

A loaf of bread – a basic necessity – which cost 1.5p in 1938 cost 65p in 1979, increased by 4,200% in just 40 years, but the biggest blow, to the dignity of the British at least, was the arrival of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ‘look at the books’ before agreeing to give a loan in 1976 – something that usually happens to Third World countries.

It was perfect timing for the ambitious grocer’s daughter with a degree in Chemistry and Law. Maggie Thatcher who blamed the establishment for allowing the country to decline to its sorry state, was, after two prior disappointing defeats, appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions.

Though she famously said in 1973, as Education Secretary, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime,” she was happily proven wrong, and was elected to be Prime Minister in 1979. And Maggie got cracking to the task of changing the country. She was determined to cut personal taxation, reduce public expenditure, curb trade union power, have less government interference, and get individuals and businesses more independent… through the following.

a) Pulverising the Unions

Margaret Thatcher saw trade unions as inefficient, abusive, restrictive leeches hampering the growth of British manufacturers, and felt that unless they were brought to book, British companies would not be able to thrive in the new, liberal, low-inflation environment she was determined to create.

Unions were holding the country hostage. Rubbish was uncollected on the streets because the binmen were on strike, patients were left in hospital waiting-rooms because the wheelchair porters were on strike, bodies were left in morgues because the gravediggers were on strike. Many of them were sympathy strikes–if the bus drivers union of London decided to go on strike, well the fish mongers union of Sheffield could go on strike in sympathy with them. And most of the time, it was just a couple of loud and mouthy union leaders intimidating other members.

Due to this, the country had effectively a 3-day working week. Frequent strikes shut down power so companies were forced to close for 2 days a week. Equally worrying, the unions had tremendous political influence which they would use to cajole and threaten the government of the day. In fact, they were responsible for the fall of Ted Heath’s government in 1974. For a firm believer in democracy like Thatcher, the idea that unelected union leaders could bully and even oust an elected government was obscene.

Thatcher was also very influenced by Friedrich Von Hayek (whom she described once as “one of the greatest intellectual minds of the 20th century”) who wrote in his book, The Road to Serfdom, “The trade unions have become the biggest obstacle to raising the living standards of the working class as a whole; they are the chief cause of unemployment and the main reason for the decline of the British economy. …Britain remains paralysed by the consequences of the coercive powers irresponsibly conferred to her until these special privileges are revoked.”

I've got a woman's ability to stick to a job and get on with it when everyone else walks off and leaves it.

And so she revoked them. A series of seven progressive and remorseless Acts of Parliament between 1980 and 1990 did it. Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate an economic revolution, something no Prime Minister before her time had dared to do.

b) Privatising Britain

 Privatisation became one of the most enduring of the Thatcher legacies, not only in Britain but copied in many countries throughout the world. Through privatisation, she pushed people into the competitive market where they had the honour of knowing they could go broke, which in turn had a transformational effect on institutions who had always thought they were too big (or too fat) to fail.

The rationale for privatisation was to reduce the role of the state in the economy, restore the powers of decision to the individual, implement the ideal of the property-owning democracy, improve productive efficiency and encourage employee share ownership, thereby improving industrial relations.

There were many who were horrified, the most famous criticism of the privatisation programme coming from Harold Macmillan, former Prime Minister of UK, when he described asset sales to finance current expenditure as “selling the family jewels!”

To which Maggie famously retorted, “No, it is selling back to the family!”

Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of a country

There was not much point in holding on to the family silver anyway if it was losing you GBP30 a second, as the British Steel Corporation was in 1980. After privatisation, by 1989, British Steel was producing as much steel as in 1979 but with one third of the labour force. By the early 1990s, British Telecom, British Steel, British Gas, British Airways and the British Airports Authorities were all hugely profitable companies in the private sector, whereas in the 1970s many of them were drains on the Treasury.

Between 1977 and 1995, under Thatcher’s privatisation drive, the British government raised GBP97billion from privatisation. Individual share ownership, thanks largely to the privatisation programme but also employee share schemes, increased sharply – from 3 million in 1979 to 9 million in 1988.

c) Bringing Sexy (Global Finance) Back

In October 1986, the Thatcher government instituted reforms to the banking and financial industries, cutting down on over-regulation, minimising the role of elitist big-boy networks and creating a free-market doctrine of open competition and meritocracy. It was termed the Big Bang, and it was exactly what was needed for an ailing London, that was already losing its dominance as the global centre of finance to hungrier, less regulated financial hubs like New York.

Spurred by her belief in free markets, the wholesale deregulation of the UK’s financial markets unleashed a new era of global banking and transformed the City of London from a closed shop to an international trading house. Global businesses came to London, creating jobs, and the City provided finance to Britain and around the world. London has not been overtaken as a financial centre since then.

The reforms enacted brought an end to the dominance of the London Stock Exchange and heralded the rise of electronic trading. Many financial conglomerates were created and in purely GDP terms, this was hugely beneficial.

Jon Moulton, Chairman of UK-listed turnaround firm Better Capital describes his personal experience during that era “When I was a lad, back in the 1970s, I went to work in the USA because it was just so horrible here. With tax rates in the 90s (percent), being rich was generally seen as socially unacceptable. Maggie’s arrival changed things quite remarkably. Whereas in 1978 many of my friends in financial services were working outside the country, by the 1980s they were all coming back.”

d) The Right To Buy

The Thatcher administration believed in property ownership and was successful in pushing owner-occupation to one of the highest levels in the industrial world. Owing to her Right-To-Buy programme between 1979 and 1988, owners increased by 3 million.

In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman

People like John Holland, who works as a security guard, bought his house in the Whittington estate in North London from the council thirty years ago… At the time, he and his sister paid GBP39,000 for their five-bedroom property, even though it was valued at around GBP70,000. Today it is worth around GBP600,000.

“If it weren’t for Mrs Thatcher’s policy, we couldn’t have afforded to buy,” he says. “There’s no way we’d be property owners now if it wasn’t for her. It was perfect, absolutely perfect.”

The real legacy of the policy is probably in the nature of the mixed communities it created. On this estate you will meet musicians, architects, and solicitors – alongside what in Thatcher’s time were known as blue-collar workers – cleaners, hospital porters and bus drivers.

This was a policy that attempted to cut across all class lines, and fulfil the very capitalist aspirations of acquiring a home and putting money in the bank. Sound housekeeping principles indeed.

e) Educating A Nation…and the World

Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to the universities was revolutionary. She felt that the universities were complacent because they were over-protected from the market and her first major step to galvanise the universities was to introduce fees for international students.

Before 1981, international students were educated effectively for free. When the fees were introduced, they were denounced by the leadership of the British universities which, with one voice, predicted no international student would apply to a British university again. Today, with the UK having close to half a million international students contributing an income of GBP5 billion for the country, they could not have been more wrong, and she, more right.

Instinctively feeling that research monies were not being utilised to the maximum, Margaret Thatcher’s next step was to cut the government support for it. Of course, her policies were denounced by the leadership of the British universities who, (yawn) predicted that they would be a disaster from which the British economy in general and British universities in particular, would never recover.

Again, they could not have been more wrong, and she, more right. By introducing accountability for research – a policy that became known as the Research Assessment Exercise – Margaret Thatcher so galvanised the British universities that they now come second only to America’s in every international league table.

She was a woman of action, with a distaste for the complacency she saw in the academics, saying, “What these critics cannot stomach is that wealth creators have a tendency to acquire wealth in the process of creating it for others. They did not speak with Oxford accents. They hadn’t got what people call ‘the right connections’; they just had one thing in common. They were men of action.”

f) UK, I bid you – HEAL THYSELF.

After its formation in 1948, the National Health System (NHS) ran into difficulties as the funding did not keep pace with the rising costs and public expectations. The proportion of the GDP spent on health fell below that of other developed countries. When a Birmingham children’s hospital started postponing heart operations due to lack of funds, Margaret Thatcher proposed a new reform, which though commonplace today, seemed preposterous at that time. She proposed that each hospital would become its own governing body and so compete with other hospitals to provide care. People were encouraged to use private healthcare and there were tax incentives for private healthcare insurance premiums.

By 1983, there were 45,000 more nurses and midwives, and over 6,500 more doctors and dentists, working for the NHS than in 1978. The Thatcher government also asked health authorities to make the maximum possible savings by putting services like laundry, catering and hospital cleaning out to competitive tender. The acid test of any policy change is whether it is reversed. Her health policy has not been reversed since she introduced this legislation.

g) The Welfare State

The British public loved their welfare state to bits, and it was Thatcher’s constant criticism of it that brought her more unpopularity than almost anything else. However, very few people know, or believed, that more was spent on welfare – in places where it mattered such as education, health, social security – in the 1980s under her leadership than ever before. At least a third higher than in the 1970s.

And she did this by cutting subsidies from those whom she believed should help themselves. Arts organisations which had enjoyed comfortable government support now were encouraged to compete for private funding, thereby creating a loathing by the movers and shakers in arts for what they said was philistinism, and what was actually a removal of unlimited funds.

The civil service was cut back by some 20% to 600,000, the lowest since the War and its running costs were brought measurably under control. Her government produced ‘The Next Steps’ which was radical at that time, for it said that the civil service should be seen for what they were, businesses delivering services to the public.

Margaret Thatcher succeeded in making a savings of GBP1 billion through these measures by the mid-1980s, and as she famously put it, “the equivalent of 22 new hospitals.”

Here I quote her friend and admirer, the Hon. Lee Kuan Yew, Former Singaporean Prime Minister, “You have resisted the temptation to take the standard solution of fiscal stimulation to reduce unemployment; instead, you seek the slower but more lasting solution of encouraging entrepreneurs to risk their capital in new ventures and to hire workers. You have made it more worthwhile to take risks to create wealth; this requires courage in a Britain where ‘profits’ has become a dirty word…

For nearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed to assume that the creation of wealth came about naturally and that what needed government attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. So, governments devised ingenious ways to transfer incomes from the successful to the less successful. In this climate, it requires a prime minister with very strong nerves to tell voters the truth, that creators of wealth are precious members of a society who deserve [the] honour plus the right to keep a better part of their rewards…”

So there you have it – how Maggie made a difference. She came to office with, as she said, one deliberate intent, to change Britain from a dependant to a self-reliant society. From a ‘give-it-to-me’ to a ‘do-it-yourself ’ nation, to a ‘get-up-and-go’ instead of a ‘sit-back-and-watch’ Britain. Perhaps her greatest single achievement, which gave her the drive to make all the above possible, was her refusal to accept, or be daunted by, the prevailing air of defeatism which she confronted when taking office in 1979.

I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job.

What I like most about her, was that she simplified everything to exactly what it was. No fancy economic jargon or ‘alien’ speak that confuses the masses. She called a spade, a spade. She made macroeconomics as simple as household management. “My policies are not based on some economic theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with : an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Live within your means. Put a nest-egg by for a rainy day. Pay your bills on time. Support the police.”

She did not believe in solving everyone’s problem by government action, believing that every individual should look out for oneself – which in itself creates character development and inner strength. She had a lot of pride in herself, and having worked hard her whole life to get where she was, and maybe 5 times harder because she was a woman, she tried to teach a little of that self-reliance to a nation.

I fight on. I fight to win

Too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They are casting their problem on society. As you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and then there are families. And no government can do anything except through other people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves, and then to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

She understood that there was a limited role for government in people’s lives. She sought to have the government serve the public interest and the people, rather than have people in service for government. I couldn’t agree more. 

She was pragmatic, and resolute. Unflinching, unapologetic, uncompromising and untiring. Passionate, intelligent and wilful. Courageous and driven. Stubborn and demanding. She had gumption and loads of spunk.

But above it all, Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, had a vision and the indomitable will to see it through. Her spirit is encapsulated in a speech made to her critics within the Conservative Party in 1980, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to… The lady’s not for turning.”

And that sums up the Thatcher era. There was no turning back. In fact, SHE made others turn. It is nearly a quarter of a century since she left 10 Downing Street for the last time in November 1990, however her legacy has remained intact. All that talk about rolling back Thatcherism which her opponents had announced in the 80s? Just a lot of talk.

It did not happen. It could not have happened. The British public would not have stood for going back to the dark days of the 70s – of power cuts, strikes, inefficiency, and a sense of general decline and malaise. They would not have tolerated a return to nationalised industries that were a drain on the Treasury.

Perhaps the biggest tribute to the Iron Lady is the one paid, not by her friends or allies but by her ‘enemies’. For her entire political life, the Labour Party and its agenda of state socialism was her political and ideological nemesis. Labour only managed to come back in power after nearly 20 years in the wilderness by renouncing nationalisation and embracing the Thatcherite ethos of free market capitalism and private ownership.

Funnily enough for someone who identified with and led the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher was the greatest revolutionary modern Britain has ever seen. She destroyed the greatest cancer in Britain, namely the class system, by introducing policies that allowed those who aspire to better their status, to do so.

Thanks to her, things that were thought impossible 40 years ago are not surprising today. A taxi driver could become a shareholder of a major public-listed company; a working-class family could own their house instead of having to rent it from the local council. But then again, Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, was also one of the aspirational class. She didn’t just break barriers… She kicked the foundations down.

Natasha Walker wrote in her book The New Feminism, “No one can ever question whether women are capable of single-minded vigour, of efficient leadership, after Margaret Thatcher. She is the great unsung heroine of British feminism.”

Margaret Thatcher normalised female success – made it about an individual and not about sex. She had an aversion to being called a feminist, because she believed in equality for all – based on performance, not sex. I say ‘amen’ to that, for wasn’t the suffragettes’ motto also “Deeds not words” way back then? I believe every country could do with a Margaret Thatcher, if they have not already adopted many of her policies. To her dissenters, I quote Albert Einstein, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

I will end my tribute to Baroness Margaret Thatcher with her own quote, “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” She did in a lifetime what many would need a few generations to achieve. I strive to be like Maggie, I want to do it all, live it all, be it all, and have my actions and not my talk, make an impact on the world around me. And if one day, another girl, comfortably unknown in another part of the world, would write a tribute to me, having been inspired by me to go on and do whatever her imagination wills her to do, I can think of no greater legacy and honour than that. Rest in Peace, Maggie, you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it. Some peace is due now.

This article was originally published in PASSIONS magazine by The IBR Asia Group