Thatcher wasn't perfect, but she helped bring shipping jobs to Birkenhead
Mrs Thatcher was herself not satisfied with the results of her government, and we should look critically at her record, writes Frank Field
The world in which all of us live has been shaped by Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. The danger for both those people, who brought an ideology into politics and saw it operated, was that some of their supporters might think that just preaching the ideology was enough, rather than also responding to what the real world was teaching them.
However, Mrs Thatcher was not uncritical of her own record. On one occasion I asked her what her greatest disappointment was in government. She said: “I cut taxes and I thought we would get a giving society, and we haven’t.” She thought we would, by low taxation, see that extraordinary culture in America whereby people make fortunes and want, perhaps publicly, to declare what they are doing with them. That had not taken root here.
We should look critically at her record and, above all else, there are two areas where we are still grappling with her legacy. First, there is the great question of wealth. Mrs Thatcher was not satisfied with the results of her government, so should we be? And what would she say about a global economy, part of which she was so responsible for creating, in which multinational companies can choose whether or not they pay taxes?
Second, despite all the gains that the market economy has given this country, there are clearly areas that its powers cannot reach. We have not come up with policies that can move those areas back to full employment. How could we rebuild our manufacturing industry in those areas to such an extent that it is once again a great driver of prosperity, productivity and employment? And how might we reform welfare-to-work programmes so that the creation of jobs specifically for people at risk of becoming long-term unemployed takes precedence over endless and fruitless online job searches?
There is a further lesson to be learned from Mrs Thatcher’s legacy. It is in my nature to lobby. Soon after I was elected to parliament, it became obvious that my lobbying efforts should be directed towards Mrs Thatcher who, as prime minister, was the most powerful person in the House of Commons.
I once went to see her to discuss a defence order for the Cammell Laird shipyard. Indeed, my lobbying efforts began after the second meeting I had as Birkenhead’s MP, when the shop stewards said: “We want a cross-party group and we want you to lead it. We want all the parties in the Wirral lobbying for orders.”
Our discussion took place the day she returned from a meeting with President Bush to decide on the first Gulf war. She had every reason to cancel it, but the meeting took place in her study. I had never seen her in such a state. She was marching around the study saying: “You’ve no idea what a struggle it is putting backbone into him.”
I said: “Prime minister, come and sit next to me because I have some things I would like to discuss with you.”
She kept talking about putting backbone into the American president in order to fight this war. Finally, she took pity on me and asked: “What do you want?” I made the plea for the defence order and she said: “Fine. Anything else?” When I said no, she immediately got up and continued: “You’ve no idea the victory I’ve had today over this.”
Of course, courtesy dictated that whichever of the Wirral MPs had lobbied her would tell the others, but in my excitement, I forgot to do so. A few days later I saw David Hunt walking down the corridor and I remembered, so I began apologising. He said: “There’s no need to apologise, Frank. The relevant secretaries of state have received a prime ministerial minute and it has been copied to their permanent secretaries.”
There was a prime minister who was making history, for right or wrong, and who was extraordinarily wound up by the events that she had managed to bring about, and she had no staff with her, but before she went to bed that night she wrote that minute to implement what she had agreed.
I always knew within seconds whether she would do something or whether she thought it was a barmy idea, in which case there was no point discussing it further. This was a great advantage for MPs, like me, lobbying on behalf of their constituents.
Frank Field is Independent MP for Birkenhead