Thatcher Her Opponents Assess The Essay
Many believed in 1983, that Margaret Thatcher’s first term in office would be her last. There were deep party divisions’ amongst the conservatives, and many were sacked or driven to resign. Margaret Thatcher was accused of “steering the ship of state straight on to the rocks.
” by her ex colleague Sir Ian Gilmour. The government had become hugely unpopular, the approval rate in April 1981 were down to 27%. Some polls even showed the conservatives in third place, behind both Labour and the Alliance. Yet in 1983 the Conservatives were able to win a massive election victory and remain in office for another seven years. Although it has been suggested that Thatcher only survived as prime minister due to the weakness of opponents and an element of luck, it appears there are other reasons for the eleven years she spent in office.
For example, the use of skilful policy and perhaps the most important, the Falklands factor. This essay will examine these issues and eventually conclude that although the above factors of weak opponent, and luck were important to Thatcher’s survival; they were certainly not the only reasons which should be taken into account.The political landscape was transformed in 1982 by the impact of the war in the Falklands on domestic politics. A the beginning of 1982, Thatcher was one the most unpopular prime ministers in living memory, her attacks on local councils and the fact unemployment was approaching 3 million was causing major concern amongst the British public. There was also a genuine fear among Conservative MPs that the next election might be very difficult to win, however victory in the Falklands changed all this.
The military regime in Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands in April 1982. Margaret Thatcher’s immediate response was a full-scale military effort to recover the islands; this decision was a gamble that could easily have gone wrong but British forces achieved complete success. This decisive and relatively painless victory was seen as a vindication of Margaret Thatcher’s bold leadership. There had been opposition to the war, but from the very beginning, the war had unleashed a wave of patriotism around the country.
There was also approval from most of the national press.Even most of the Labour party supported the recovery of the Falklands. Historian Clive Christie recognises the importance the Falklands had on enabling Thatcher to remain in office, “The Falklands did the Labour party enormous electoral harm, and was almost certainly one of the reasons Thatcher was able to boast a crushing victory a year later.” The “Falklands factor” galvanised the Conservative activists. Margaret Thatcher gained self confidence and began to dominate the party in a way she had not been able to before. The Falklands War was a springboard for her election victory in 1983, and is evidence that luck played a part in Thatcher being able to remain in office.
As without the Falklands factor, it is most likely the political climate would still be hostile for Thatcher and the Conservative party, instead public opinion on Thatcher was completely transformed, and they now viewed her as a confident, pragmatic leader who would lead Britain with re-assurance. Consequently it seems that without this stroke of luck, Thatcher’s political carer would have been cut short. It is therefore evident that luck was an important factor for Thatcher as a prime minister. However, on its own, the Falklands factor might not have been enough to save Margaret Thatcher’s government; she also benefited from the improving economic situation.Another factor for Margaret Thatcher’s long term in office not mentioned in the above view is the improving economic situation which took place throughout the 1980’s. Although under Thatcher unemployment remained at a fairly high rate, the improving economic situation proved popular with the public, and many began to believe that Thatcher could indeed do as she said and transform Britain’s economy.
The recession which hit Britain in the late 1970’s had bottomed out by 1981. Growth resumed in 1982, in fact it was nearly 4 per cent by 1983. On top of this inflation was falling, including the mortgage rate by four percent in the months before and after the 1983 general election. The sale of council houses also proved to be very popular, and many people became new home owners and what were seen as very reasonable prices.
Although unemployment remained high throughout, the government managed to refocus the British public on the battle against inflation and so consequently people were increasingly accepting of the high level of unemployment. Due to Thatcher and her government being able to skilfully win round the public, despite the slow economic start it is certain faith grew in the government’s financial ability. People accepted vices such as unemployment as a necessary evil and had faith in the governments ability. It was certainly a factor for Thatcher’s survival as prime minister. However as the above statement says, much of Thatcher survival was also dependant on the weakness of her opponents.Between the general elections of 1979 and 1983, the Labour party came close to political oblivion.
The internal divisions which plagued the party boiled over as Labour descended into its worst crisis since the trauma of 1931. Press coverage of Labour was almost universally hostile and the revival of the Liberals meant that Labour no longer represented the only anti-Conservative opposition. Whole sections of Labours traditional political support leaked away. Between 1979 and 1992 the party lost four elections in a row, its strong links with the unions were seen by voters as contributory factors to the industrial strife, and to Labours inability to govern.
In many respects Labour was its own worst enemy in the period. It presented an image of a divided party more concerened with its own internal wrangles than with preparing itself for government. It is true to say that the Labour party were unable to mount an effective challenge to Thatcher. Problems were made worse, when the split between the right and the left of the part were deepened. Callaghan had been a moderate leader but he was followed by Michael foot in 1980 and he was a man of strong socialist opinion and these opinions were what caused the deeper rifts amongst the Labour party.Moreover, even Foot’s admirers saw him as a man best suited as the opposition of the day; they could never imagine him actually being the government of the day.
Lynch states how Labour under foot would certainly have been beneficial to Thatcher remaining in power, and how he posed little threat to the leadership. “Foot’s three year period as leader saw the Labour party lose touch with the electorate. Politically, he was no match to Thatcher.” Labours leadership clearly lacked credibility.
Another weakness throughout their time in opposition was their election manifestos were mostly a mixture of left wing promises, including unilateral disarmament and the abolition of fox hunting. One Labour MP Gerald Kaufman even labelled the manifestos as “the longest suicide note in history”. The weakness of her opposition was certainly a factor behind Thatcher remaining in office for such a long period of time, the electorate really had no other option other then the Conservative party for much of the eleven year period as no other party could provide a substantial enough alternative to Thatcher. However, Thatcher’s own skilful policy cannot be ignored when assessing her time in office.
Margaret Thatcher’s “heyday” is viewed to be from 1983-7 and is certainly one of the main reasons for her survival as prime minister. Fortified by her huge cabinet majority of 1983, Thatcher reshuffled her cabinet, bringing in more Thatcherites, and pushed ahead with her programme against a background of continuing monetarism. It is fair to say that the governments’ record contained some major achievements; Thatcher had also obtained an almost total mastery of the press. Her press secretary Bernhard Ingham became hugely influential in securing favourable press coverage through informal contacts with journalists and the use of deliberate leaks to the press. Thatcher used her strong political position to act boldly, which is how she secured many of her achievements of her “heyday”.
She took on and defeated three of her main enemies: state controlled industries, left-wing local councils, and the unions. Her management of the unions won her much support, as people were becoming increasingly tired of the disruption they appeared to be causing to every day life, Thatcher’s victory in the miners strike of 1984 were seen as the pinnacle of her defeat of union power.In the economy key policies were the privatisation of key industries and the stimulation of free enterprise through tax cuts and deregulation. Fierce battles were also fought with the Greater London Council, who Thatcher regarded as an enemy in terms of ideology and wasting resources. Pearce and Stewart describe Thatcher’s second term in office as “Full of long standing achievements, which secured many loyal followers.” Thatcher also improved the education system, which pleased many supporters and caused many Labour voters to switch allegiances.
Parents had more say in where there child went to school and a “national curriculum” was introduced to ensure that all children got a well rounded and equal education. Overall Thatcher’s second term in office proved mostly successful, with many significant achievements. These achievements undoubtedly contributed to her survival as prime minister. Alternatively it could be stated that controversy in relation to Thatcher’s opposition had a more prominent impact on her survival in office.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was formed in January 1981, where a group of leading Labour politicians, the so-called “Gang of Four”, issued their “Lime house declaration”, announcing the formation of the Council for Social Democracy. In doing so they triggered a storm of controversy within the Labour movement, which tainted any hope the Labour party may have had of being seen as a real threat against Thatcher. In the eyes of the Labour loyalists, the four “deserters”, David Owens, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers, were guilty of betrayal. The increasing left wing influence which was seen on the Labour party was the reason behind the breaking away of the Gang of Four, who wished to build a new centralist alternative capable of appealing to a middle ground.
The new SDP soon made an impact on national politics. In the summer of 1981, Roy Jenkins almost won the safe Labour seat of Warrington in a by-election, What the by-elections said was that Labour could never hope to win back power without the voters who were now switching to the SDP. Lynch describes this decision of votes as “The final divide” meaning that it was the final piece of evidence to show that the controversy amongst the left conclusively meant that Thatcher had little or no challenge to power for much of her time in office. Although initially Thatcher was angered by the formation of the SDP it appeared to eventually become a blessing in disguise, dividing the left opposition beyond repair and providing the controversy to scare off many loyalists.
To conclude, it is evident that as the above view states two of the main reasons that Thatcher was able to survive as prime minister from 1979-1990 were indeed the fact that she had weak opponents and luck on her side. The deep divisions amongst the Labour part meant that they were never a real challenge to her power, and although the liberals appeared to make a small comeback they were never a serious threat to Thatcher. Similarly, it is uncertain whether Thatcher would have won the 1983 general election, at least so convincingly if it were not for her bravery in the Falklands changing public opinion dramatically. However, despite these being key reason other factors cannot be ignored; such as Thatcher’s economic revival in the early 1980’s as well as the defeat of many of her “enemies” which lead the British public to believe she was pragmatic and reliable in her economic and social promises.
Therefore, the weakness of Thatcher’s opponents and luck were certainly important factors of Thatcher’s survival as prime minister, but similarly they were not the only factors which played an important role.