Ian Birrell

Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


Forty years ago today, the British people went to the polls and elected their first female prime minister. This was the most seismic political event in my lifetime – before Brexit – due to the national changes she wrought and her combative style of politics, rather than her gender.

Voters were fed up with industrial strife, frustrated by political paralysis, perhaps even frightened by decline so extreme that, as it later emerged, her Downing Street predecessor Jim Callaghan had been talking about a possible breakdown of democracy. He said he would have emigrated if younger.

We should never forget what a dark decade the Seventies was. Not least as another Labour leader focuses on turning back the clock with his anachronistic brand of socialism and crass anti-Americanism. There was a reason punk rock exploded from dull suburbs in those days amid drought, a falling pound, high taxes, power cuts, racist police, rampant inflation, rising crime and routine strikes. There was a six-month waiting list for telephone installation in London, something that seems incredible in this digital age when we constantly check our mobile phones.

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I was one year too young to vote in this watershed election – and probably more focused on my family moving house for the first time on the day of polling. I doubt I would have backed Margaret Thatcher in 1979, however, given my dislike for her social conservatism.

Yet as time passes, society liberalises and smoke clears from those long-distant political battlefields, I have come to appreciate how this extraordinary woman merged pragmatism and principle so astutely in her politics – and not just when lamenting the sorry mess being created under Britain’s second female prime minister.

There is a supreme irony in the fact that Thatcher is now a progressive icon on some of the most important issues of our age – especially as Right-wingers tear apart her party and torture the nation while claiming to be devout followers of her creed. Few people would admit this, of course, since six years after her death she still divides opinion sharply: loved by conservatives, loathed by liberals and the Left. Yet like it or not, she was largely on the correct side of critical issues that still plague politics today, amid the rise of nationalism and populism: on Britain’s place in Europe, on climate change and on globalisation.

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Climate change is perhaps the least controversial of these areas. Her passionate rallying calls towards the end of the Eighties in key speeches to the Royal Society and United Nations were clear, concise and absolutely critical in pushing this vital cause onto the global stage. Her message was later underscored in speeches both at home and abroad. She took the issue away from the fringe and – as smarter green activists admit – planted it firmly in the political mainstream.

Thatcher saw that Conservatism should embrace the environment. Aided by her scientific expertise – which enabled her to appreciate and assess evidence emerging from forests, polar regions and pollution hotspots – she understood that real Conservatives could not be climate change deniers. She argued for the urgent need for concerted international action, endorsing smart state policies allied with private sector innovation, rather than simply crass attacks on capitalism.

“The danger of global warning is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices so that we do not live at the expense of future generations,” she told a Geneva climate conference in 1990. “Our ability to come together to stop or limit damage to the world’s environment will be perhaps the greatest test of how far we can act as a world community.”

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Despite her intuitive nationalism, Thatcher stood also for economic globalisation as part of her energetic mission to open markets and roll back state intervention, alongside her Washington soulmate Ronald Reagan. Among the early acts of 1979 was the abolition of foreign exchange controls – a significant breach with the past that played a critical role in rebuilding the economy and proved vital to London’s revival after grim years of decline and population loss. This was followed by the ‘big bang’ financial reforms that led the UK capital to blossom as a global city – with one-third of its population now born abroad – and helped fuel national resurgence (along with more corrosive issues such as inequality and tax avoidance).

So successful was this revival that by the time the euro was launched at the end of last century, the City dominated trading in the new currency despite British refusal to adopt it – the perfect symbol of how opening up trade, importing talent and tearing down walls can restore national fortunes.

Thatcher also became personally involved in luring foreign owners to create Canary Wharf on the ramshackle old docklands of east London and to invest in Britain’s moribund motor manufacturing industry. She enticed Nissan to Sunderland by selling the idea of Britain as an unfettered ‘gateway’ into the European Union, helping spark revival of a sector so emblematic of decline in the Seventies.

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Then there is the vexed issue of Europe. Yet even here, where both sides angrily feud over Thatcher’s legacy, there should be no doubt that her finest acts included her leadership in the creation of single market freedoms. “We must get this right – too often in the past Britain has missed opportunities,” she said in a landmark 1988 speech, continuing:

Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people. Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

She was right. This was a superb achievement, which her successor Sir John Major called her “greatest triumph” – except that today this market that accounts for almost half our exports and helped foster our renaissance is much bigger, with another 215 million customers. “When you read her papers for 1988, you see her sheer level of enthusiasm for the single market,” said historian Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation last year.

Interestingly, he added that her notorious Bruges speech in September that year – which proclaimed “our destiny is in Europe” but also helped coin the term ‘euroscepticism’ – was never intended to be an anti-European diatribe.

When Thatcher stood on the steps of Downing Street following that election four decades ago, she spoke of her excitement at “the greatest honour that can come to any citizen in a democracy”. Then she quoted the words of St. Francis of Assisi, saying “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”.

This phrase rang very hollow over subsequent years of economic disruption, fierce industrial strife and bitter political clashes. Yet how strange it is that as these three themes of climate change, Europe and globalisation still dominate national debate, it is liberals and progressives who now fight to protect Thatcher’s heritage amid assaults from the hard Left and her self-styled torchbearers on the Right.