Best-selling author, Hilary Mantel, and clearly not a massive fan of Lady Thatcher, has recently caused a great deal of fuss in certain quarters with the publication of her collection of short stories, one of which deals with the latter’s fictional assassination by the IRA in 1983.
This reminded me of a letter I wrote to the Lincolnshire Echo nearly 25 years ago, following a television programme broadcast in 1989 on the centenary of the birth of Adolf Hitler. During this programme an interview took place with a former member of the Hitler Youth, not untypical, from my experience, of many Germans of his generation, who asserted that, had Hitler been ‘removed’ in 1938, he would have probably gone down in history as one of the greatest Germans who had ever lived.
Heaven knows, we are not really comparing like with like; but the idea of someone being cut off ‘in their prime’ raises some interesting issues.
The idea of the Iron Lady departing the scene in the mid 1980s is not so fanciful when you consider what might have happened at the Grand Hotel, Brighton on the evening of October 12 1984 during the Conservative Party Conference, or the ‘near-miss’ on November 8 1939, when a bomb in the Buergerbrauekeller in Munich, where Hitler was due to make a speech, exploded 13 minutes after his departure.
That’s probably the one to which the interviewee was referring. He was clearly prepared to overlook the nature of the Nazi regime from its inception, given its undoubted early success in bringing down unemployment and restoring some pride to a nation blighted by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the world wide depression of the early 1930s. However, even he obviously accepted that, as events unfolded, particularly over the final six years of the 12 years it was in power, the evil at its heart which eventually emerged was even beyond his acceptance.
My letter speculated on what might have happened had the Iron Lady ‘left the scene shortly after her victory in 1987 instead of undertaking more and more dogmatic reforms for which there is no majority in the country’. I went on: “Those who give her Government no credit at all for what it did in the first half of this decade should cast their minds back to 1979 and ask themselves why the largest minority of the electorate gave her power.”
We can all play the game of ‘What if?’ can’t we? There will be occasions in all of our lives when their course will have been altered by decisions taken by us or others associated with us or events that were beyond our control. However, it is only a few of us down the years, whose lives are so crucial that decisions we take have a much more profound and wider influence on the world around us and may alter the course of history.
Here are a few examples from many thousands available:
Firstly, I wonder what language this article would have been written in if the Romans hadn’t come here or after them the Angles and Saxons, and if Duke William of Normandy hadn’t defeated King Harald at the Battle of Hastings. On another topic, what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? Would the two American states that this victory would probably have created have evolved into the same powerhouse that the United States did in the 20th century? What if Germany, instead of being offered an armistice, had actually been forced to surrender and been occupied in 1918? Perhaps we could have avoided the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and the Cold War.
Let’s get back to Lady Thatcher. There are a couple more pertinent ‘What ifs’ in her story as well. What if Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, had gone to the country in the autumn of 1978, before the ‘Winter of Discontent’ destroyed his chances of re election? What if the Tories had done what Callaghan’s Foreign Secretary, David (now Lord) Owen, had done and left a destroyer in the South Atlantic, thus discouraging the Argentine Junta from risking an invasion of the Falklands? And finally, what if we hadn’t discovered massive amounts of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s, whose revenues cushioned many of the redundancies that Mrs Thatcher’s more controversial monetarist policies produced?
I honestly feel that, had her CV contained only the following three items from her early career, some of those who would gladly dance on her grave even now might well think slightly differently of her. Firstly, as Edward Heath’s Education Secretary, she turned more schools into comprehensives than any other politician, finishing the work that Labour’s Anthony Crossland had started a decade earlier. Secondly, as Prime Minister, she took on the more militant Trades Unions, particularly the National Union of Miners under Arthur Scargill, and prevailed, although clearly helped by the latter’s refusal to hold a ballot to sanction action, which effectively split his union.
Many people, even life-long trades unionists like myself, felt that the balance of power between employers and employees, thanks to decades of weak and ineffective management, both national and local, had been tipped too far in favour of powerful unions and their bosses, many of whom had a strong political agenda not shared by the majority of their citizens, let alone all their members even, which they tried repeatedly to enforce by industrial action rather than the ballot box.
With memories, for example, of national dock strikes scuppering our exports, of striking car workers at Ford, British Leyland and Vauxhall plants hastening the demise of many of our indigenous motor manufacturers, of the three day week in 1974, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79, we secretly cheered her and her like minded colleagues on.
Thirdly, who else but the Iron Lady could have taken on General Leopaldo Galtieri and his murdering Junta in the South Atlantic? I would struggle to see Labour’s Leader at the time, Michael Foot, fulfilling that role. It’s just a pity that her armour and her reputation were getting a little tarnished by the time her party forced her to resign.
It was the late Enoch Powell, who once said; “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream… end in failure.” Poor old Enoch, some still maintain that he was the best Tory Prime Minister we never had. Who knows? If only he hadn’t made that infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech to West Midlands Tories in April 1968, it might have been Mr Powell who would have succeeded Ted Heath in 1975 as party leader instead of Margaret Hilda Thatcher.