Paul Abbott 11.36am
With a new film out, some brickbats will be thrown. But forget the myths. Margaret Thatcher was actually one of the most sensible Prime Ministers we have ever been lucky enough to have.
Imagine a drafty auditorium hall in London. It is 1975. A female trade union member is speaking. She has just been elected as the first female leader of a mainstream political party - against the odds, in the face of opposition from the right-wing press. Now she is addressing a movement called the Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU).
This woman is a progressive, a firebrand Member of Parliament: one of only a handful of MPs to support Leo Abse’s bid to legalise homosexuality, or to vote in favour of David Steel’s Bill to legalise abortion.
Considered left-wing by many, this is what Margaret Thatcher had to say to her trade union comrades:
“As you well know, for over 100 years, ever since Disraeli’s day, since before the Labour Party existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit, but that it should assist, the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members…
It is not just for the benefit of this Party—it is for the benefit of the trades union movement, and of the whole country, that those of reason and moderation should be as active and determined in union affairs as are the extremists.”
Margaret Thatcher is often remembered in crude and simplistic terms. But consider the facts. The truth is more subtle:
1. Thatcher believed in the state school system. As Education Secretary, in the early 1970s, she hugely increased the number of pupils at comprehensive schools from 32 per cent to 62 per cent. In 1971, at the very first opportunity, she increased funding for state schools, saying: “The substantial replacement and improvement of primary school buildings will be continued. Grants to direct grant schools will be increased. Provision for higher and further education will be improved and expanded.”
2. Thatcher believed in public spending. Her first act as Prime Minister, on her very first day in office, was to increase the wages of rank-and-file police officers. Over ten years, she raised NHS spending in real terms - up 32 per cent. Social security spending - up 32 per cent. Employment and training spending - up 33 per cent. And she paid for it all with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’, by taxing North Sea Oil at 90 per cent - something that is too left-wing these days even for the Labour party frontbench these days.
3. Thatcher campaigned for women’s rights. As Prime Minister, she toughened guideline sentencing for rape; put extra money into the NHS for tackling breast cancer and cervical cancer; and hugely expanded the numbers of women both in work, and at university.
Margaret Thatcher is a divisive figure. She had an ear for the rabble-rousing phrase. But the truth is, she did more to advance the NHS, state education, and women’s rights than almost anyone else in the 1970s and 1980s. That is why the Left - indeed, anyone with a progressive bone in their body - should love Margaret Thatcher.
Paul Abbott works for a Conservative MP in Parliament, and tweets at @Paul_T_Abbott