A new generation of Conservatives must learn from Thatcher's optimism
Margaret Thatcher reignited the flame of national self-confidence and lifted Britain’s standing in the world. New Conservatives must learn from her ability to present an alternative based on conservative ideas, writes Priti Patel
Margaret Thatcher was a visionary leader who inspired, delivered change and left a legacy few politicians can match. She believed that societies should encourage and reward the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs, who alone create the wealth without which governments cannot do anything. That a country, our country would prosper only by encouraging people to save and to spend no more than they earn and that profligacy (and, even worse, borrowing) were her road to perdition. The essence of Thatcherism was a strong state and a free economy.
For Mrs Thatcher, her system was moral as much as economic. She confronted the “evil” empires of communism and socialism, the very forces that crushed individual freedom and liberty, but her distinctive and most politically successful feature was the sheer clarity, indeed conviction, of her beliefs.
Margaret Thatcher was the political giant of her time. She reignited the flame of national self-confidence, as a great patriot she lifted Britain’s standing in the world and put freedom at the forefront of government and political life. During her time in office she rebalanced our economy in favour of enterprise and freedom, Government spending was curbed to control the money supply, exchange controls were abolished and the currency was allowed to continue to float. Despite the vocal opposition to her, she won three consecutive General Elections, laid the foundations for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Conservative win and established a new political consensus much of which has lasted since she left office.
Margaret Thatcher put her values, Conservative values, into action. Throughout the 1980s we saw the frontiers of the state being rolled back to empower people, families and enterprise. She trusted the people to take control of their lives – to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. Low taxes, free enterprise, incentives to reward home ownership, the expansion of a property owning democracy widening opportunities to own homes and shares and social mobility were put front and centre of her administrations. As she said in 1989: “We in the Conservative Party are conviction politicians. We know what we believe. We hold fast to our beliefs. And when elected, we put them into practice.”
From her own upbringing and experiences – as a daughter of a shopkeeper and in her professional career – she understood the importance of breaking down barriers and empowering people. Her own experiences and values motivated a nation to succeed, which is why she led the Conservative Party to three election wins and widened our appeal.
She knew how to engage and connect with people and deliver policies that met their aspirations and supported opportunity. For those who wanted to be entrepreneurs she backed them with the introduction of the Enterprise Allowance –one of the most successful schemes introduced by any Government. This enabled people from all backgrounds to start their own business and as a result entrepreneurs have founded successful businesses of all sizes from sole trader operations to multi-million pound job creating firms. Lives changed and transformed for the better. The enterprise culture she helped foster has seen the number of businesses rise from less than 2 million in 1979 to over 5 million today.
For those who wanted to have the security of owning their own homes she pressed ahead not only with right to buy but wider reforms to boost homeownership. In the period 1981 to 1991 the proportion of owner-occupiers rose from 57.7% to 67.8%. This gave over 3 million more households the benefits and security of home ownership.
Opportunities also arose for more people to own shares and benefit from more choice and accountability in the public services which their taxes paid for. As someone who grew up in the 1980s and saw my own family run a business, it was clear to me that under Margaret Thatcher those who worked hard and did the right thing were rewarded. The benefit of the motivation and inspiration provided by Margaret Thatcher are difficult to measure but cannot be underestimated
Critics of Margaret Thatcher at the time and since often try to tarnish her record by making claims about public services – they disingenuously misrepresent her commitment to good financial housekeeping. As a result of her economic reforms, the economy grew and enabled increases in public spending on key services – a point Mrs Thatcher was brilliant at articulating herself.
Investment in the NHS rose with a 19% increase in GPs between 1980 and 1991, lower patient to GP ratios and an expansion of nurses and other services being available in GP surgeries. Reforms and investment in education meant the establishment of the national curriculum to raise standards in schools and improve opportunities and education for all and Mrs Thatcher recognised that underperforming and unreformed public services affected the poorest and most vulnerable the most. A clear example of this was her ‘Micros in Schools’ scheme to get British microcomputers rolled out into schools across the country to widen opportunities for a generation to embrace computing and prepare for the future.
By promoting economic freedom for families and businesses the British economy was revitalised from the economic malaise and cycle of decline to become prosperous and competitive. Unemployment fell, strong conditions for business and investment were established and this also meant our country was able to invest more into public services.
She battled against those who sought to exploit our strength as the EU discovered. Achieving her biggest political win in Europe securing Britain’s annual budget rebate in 1984, which amounted to over £28 billion between 1985 and 2000. On numerous occasions she stood alone in Europe, rejecting calls from many in her own party to cede ground, battling for Britain’s survival as a sovereign nation state. In her famous Bruges speech she provided a vision that focused on cooperation between European nations and she promoted a Europe based on respect for national sovereignty and one that embraced free markets. In her own words she said; “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
She embodied leadership – fighting for principles, beliefs and ideals no matter how loud the protests and the pressure for compromise.
As she left office in 1990, Britain stood taller in the world with more families benefiting from security, prosperity and improved opportunities. A new generation of Conservatives must learn from Thatcher’s spirit of optimism and the ability to present an alternative based on conservative ideas that an electorate can understand. Thatcher’s message of hope seemed to many at the time, an impossible dream. But she succeeded in turning her country around out of an extraordinary faith in the human spirit based upon the principles of liberty and freedom.
Priti Patel is Conservative MP for Witham