The Lady’s not for Burying

Who remembers the power cuts that regularly put the lights out in Britain between 1970 and 1973? I do. During the premiership of the well-meaning but beleaguered Edward Heath, industrial action, aided and abetted by superannuated network equipment, would suddenly plunge us into Cimmerian darkness. As a schoolboy, I often did my homework by Dickensian candlelight. The Evening Standard (or was it the Evening News?) provided quizzes in academic subjects to encourage pupils to keep up their studies. I received a prize in astronomy (not the prelude to a great career as a cosmologist). In 1973 Christmas itself was nearly snuffed out. The Norwegian government’s annual gift of a spruce tree for Trafalgar Square was accompanied by an equally Norwegian emergency generator – in case the national grid went under and dowsed the fairy lights. Who remembers the three-day working week? From 1 January to 7 March 1974, still under the long-suffering Heath government, electricity was, to all intents and purposes, rationed, so as to conserve the dwindling coal stocks at power stations. The reasons? The increase in the price of oil and widespread, repeated industrial action. The results? Loss of pay or unemployment for millions of workers.

Who remembers the (in that decade) nightly news broadcasts on television, peppered with such terms as ‘wildcat strikes’, ‘secondary picketing’, ‘work to rule’, ‘go slow’ or ‘overtime ban’? Who can recall the familiar (and, in popular myth, capricious) cry of shop stewards: ‘Everybody out!’ It was not all the fault of union hardliners. A strange and savage beast, more terrifying than the Jabberwock, roamed at will throughout the land, feasting off human flesh. Its name? Stagflation. A merciless hybrid of inflation and problematic growth. Inflation peaked at 25% in 1975 under Harold Wilson’s second Labour government, as did the unemployment rate at 30% (The Bank of England website was good enough to corroborate my ‘recollection’ here).

Who remembers those steely fellows from the IMF, armed with their aluminium-rimmed attaché cases, who arrived in London on 1 November 1976, as in some wintry banana republic, to start negotiating a $3.9 billion loan to this former imperial power. (I ‘remembered’ the precise amount by looking it up in the FT archives).

Who remembers the ‘Winter of Discontent’, in the 1978-1979 season, under the premiership of the well-meaning but beleaguered James Callaghan? Lorry drivers, train drivers, hospital staff, some gravediggers, dustbin men and many others – all struck against the wage restraint that the government wished to impose in order to save the economy as a whole. Incalculable millions of working days were lost in industrial disputes (well, about 29,474,000 in 1979). I don’t know why, but the phrase ‘Labour isn’t working’ comes to mind. Now where did I hear or see those words…?

This is the tide that Margaret Thatcher turned. After her election in May 1979, there would be more discontent. Unemployment and inflation rose again in her first years before they subsided. What nerves of steel, what sheer guts, it took not to reverse course. Many people felt – and still feel – that the new prime minister was personally responsible for wiping out their jobs, rather than the fact that the world no longer seemed to want what they were producing at the price they were asking. That this was a tragic state of affairs should never be doubted. Nowadays we have perhaps become more familiar with the effects of Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ in capitalism. Nowadays we may have become fractionally more clear-sighted in the search for new ways of palliating the social consequences. But by 1979 the fate of the country was at stake. No one had any marvellous alternative – not Heath, not Callaghan nor Wedgewood-Benn. A bitter medicine had to be administered. Someone had to have the clarity of vision, the sense of purpose, the steady hand and – above all – the selfless resolve to administer the medicine. It takes a very muscular ego to be truly selfless. I believe that Margaret Thatcher did it for us, but not for our gratitude. And this is the vital difference between the great leaders and everybody else.

With her finally passing on, so long after she left power, we see many in Britain and around the world decrying her achievements and, like pusillanimous historical re-enactors, staging the old battles of the 1980s. It is no doubt reassuring to be able to blame one’s problems on some legendary Wicked Witch of the West, rather than on the complex state of the world. They say she divided the country, yet the country was already divided. The 1970s were no land of lost content where folks from different social classes, professions and regions rubbed elbows in jocund fellowship. In a final paradox of destiny, she did give great numbers of people a brief and quite exceptional sense of being united – in opposition to her as she fell from power.

Perhaps that is just what an ultimate type of leader should do. May her example live on.