15 April 2013
In Praise of Politicians – Why We Shouldn’t Vilify Thatcher
One evening last week I went out to dinner. Not a remarkable event you might think but it was someone’s birthday and there were over 20 people present. For the most part it was a pleasant occasion but the reason I mention it is because I was appalled at some of the comments I heard expressed regarding the death of Margaret Thatcher. If some of these people had their way, Mrs Thatcher would not have survived as long as she did – she’d have been taken out and strung up from a lamppost several years ago. All very well when spoken in jest (how many others could we say that about?) but deeply offensive in practice.
You cannot deny that Margaret Thatcher aroused, and polarized, public opinion. In fact, I can think of no other politician who did so to the same extent. She was the ultimate Marmite personality - you either loved her or hated her. At the risk of inflaming sentiment still further, I think that there were times when she was right and that there were times when she was wrong but I have no intention of debating her policies here and my argument doesn’t rest on whether she was right or not. What I will say is that I believe she was a great supporter of our country, she held her views sincerely, she was passionate about them, and she was prepared to be tremendously unpopular in order to do what she thought was the right thing.
At completely the other end of the political spectrum, I admired Michael Foot for exactly the same reasons. Neither he, nor Thatcher, pandered to public opinion – they were both ‘conviction’ politicians. They advocated what they thought was right and ultimately let the British people decide whichever point of view they chose to accept. We need such figures in public life – people who are prepared to stand up for their beliefs and argue them before the electorate even if it means courting disapprobation. Without them, what we call democracy becomes a sham and we will be reduced to enduring the whims of the so-called ‘career’ politicians.
These are the people who are prepared to do what the rest of us dare not for what they believe is the common good. When Churchill led us to victory in the Second World War he undoubtedly consigned many British (and other) citizens to their deaths – but this is too easy an example to use. Remember, he took similar decisions about the First World War, notably regarding Gallipoli. When Thatcher waged her battle with the Trade Unions in the 1980’s, there is no doubt that she caused untold pain to a significant portion of the British public. In the long term, Blair’s premiership may be remembered for the fact that he took us to war with Iraq and incurred yet more British casualties. Whether they were right or wrong, as individuals I doubt that many of us would have the guts to make these difficult choices in the face of such determined opposition. Today we have a government faced with the monumental task of restoring our public finances from the derelict state they have fallen into. The decisions they are forced to take are never going to endear them to our hearts – but somebody’s got to do it and I’m just glad it’s not me.
As a nation, we are fond of denigrating our politicians – it’s a national pastime and one I wouldn’t want to change. The tradition of political satire in this country is something to treasure and a sign of a healthy democracy. When something goes wrong (as it often does) we can always blame them instead of finding fault with ourselves – they’re a convenient scapegoat and in that respect serve another useful purpose.
But they don’t always make mistakes. Believe it or not they do get some things right and on balance, I would have to say that’s the majority of the time. As evidence, I offer the progress we have made as a country since the end of World War II - our improved prosperity, our continuation as a free and democratic society, the great steps forward we have made in health and education. These things have happened because of politicians, not despite them, and although we may (and should) disagree with them on occasion, they are generally to be welcomed.
Mrs Thatcher was an extreme example of her kind but without her, and others like her, we should be impoverished as a nation. These are special people and we should value them.