Christopher Reeve, a traveller and a teacher with an interest in the 20th century history of the United Kingdom, is talking to Pawel Rogalinski about Margaret Thatcher, her charisma and popularity (interview, part 2/3).
[the 1st part of the interview: http://www.przegladdziennikarski.pl/churchill-constantly-gave-confidence-building-speeches-interview-part-13/]
– Why was Margaret Thatcher so popular in the British society?
– In the case of Margaret Thatcher, the background problems which propelled her to office were the economic difficulties of the late 1970s. In fact, Margaret Thatcher was not originally voted in as leader of the Conservative Party. She ousted the incumbent leader, Edward Heath. She herself was to suffer the same fate in 1991 when she was seen as an electoral liability to the Conservative party and out of touch with the needs of the people. The British economy had suffered from a decade of economic difficulties with strikes, inflation and low productivity, as well as a loss of prestige on the world stage. These problems – I remember clearly – were discussed in living rooms, offices, factories, shops, newspapers and on television throughout the country. Mrs. Thatcher and her advisers sought to address these problems with a firm economic policy which would stop the chaos and halt the economic decline. Public utilities were sold, and for the first time in their lives, many people became shareholders. The number of strikes declined and industrial efficiency improved. Many companies became more dynamic as they sought efficiencies, productivity and profitability. Areas of industrial dereliction were cleared and new lighter industry and retail parks created. Credit and bank loans were made easier to obtain and house prices were encouraged to rise. The country took on a more prosperous and orderly look.
– She also had to face several difficult international problems…
– Yes, in foreign affairs, the Falklands War in 1982 boosted Mrs. Thatcher’s popularity and a sense of national pride. Additionally, Mrs. Thatcher’s cooperation with US President Ronald Regan in challenging the Soviet Union and supporting independence movements in the former Warsaw Pact countries increased her prestige in a Churchillian way.
– I think she increased her prestige not only in the UK, but also in Poland and other Central European countries. Lech Walesa later mentioned in interview with The Guardian: “Without her, our fight against communists would have lasted much longer. It would have been confronted with bigger difficulties, if not destruction.” And despite the fact that she was snubbed by dons from her own alma mater – Oxford University, she was so much respected in Poland that she was awarded two honoris causa degrees – in Poznan and Lodz.
– Yes, she was denied the honorary degree in Oxford, but even her spokesman said: “If they do not wish to confer the honour, the prime minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”
– For quite a long time the majority of people appreciated her reforms.
– The Thatcher revolution reduced the power of unionised labour and greatly increased the power of finance capitalists. As long as the majority of the population saw their standard of living improving, Mrs. Thatcher continued to be popular and people generally placed their faith in the effectiveness of her policies.
– But everything has its end…
– Unfortunately, an economy which relied on house-price inflation and easy credit to sustain growth started to show weaknesses and Mrs. Thatcher’s policies became increasingly challenged and amended. A wealth gap developed between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and some dysfunctional aspects of policy required state intervention to rectify problems. The reform of local government finance through the “poll tax” was seen by many people to be unfair to poorer sections of society, resulting in street riots in London. Many working class people had lost their jobs in the old industrial areas as the government prioritised the financial industry in the south east at the expense of other parts of the country. Improvements were slow for them and they became increasingly vocal and restless. A reliance on ‘the market’ to rectify the situation was perceived to be failing – as it had in the 1920s and 30s. Increasingly, it was felt that financiers and capitalists had the ear of the government with the rest of the population treated with distain. As the Thatcher’s government was seem to be prioritising the interests of the rich, support in the country gradually declined.
– And Mrs. Thatcher became less popular than her party.
– Yes. The Conservative Party increasingly felt that Mrs. Thatcher would now lose the party in the next general election and she was replaced as Prime Minister in 1991 by John Major.
– Thank you for the conversation.
Interview by Pawel Rogalinski
University of Greenwich, Chatham 06.08.2013.