What we think of her

30 years after she came to power, what does Britain think of Margaret Thatcher's legacy?
May 3, 2009
Read David Willetts's complete essay on the meaning of Margaret Thatcher here

Margaret Thatcher's reputation as Britain's most influential and divisive post-war leader was confirmed by a survey undertaken by Prospect and pollsters YouGov to explore her reputation 30 years after the election that brought her to power. Today, just as when she left office, the iron lady splits Britain pretty much down the middle, with 40 per cent of those questioned feeling she made Britain a better place to live, set against 41 per cent who thought she made it worse. Only 6 per cent thought she had made no difference at all.

This enduring division over Thatcher's legacy does not, however, translate into unpopularity. Indeed, our poll shows that she remains surprisingly popular compared to contemporary political leaders. Perhaps most impressively, Thatcher in her prime is rated as a better prime minister than Gordon Brown to steer Britain through the current economic crisis, by 47 versus 34 per cent of votes. Lest contemporary Tories feel too happy, however, her victory margin is even greater when it comes to leading the Tory party: 49 per cent prefer her to David Cameron, compared to only 24 per cent backing the current Tory leader. (Thatcher still turns off self-identified Labour voters who, when asked to hold their noses, pick Cameron over Thatcher by the slimmest of margins—37 versus 36 per cent.)

On policy, Thatcher wins lasting approval for two of her most significant political victories: giving more power to the private sector and curbing the clout of trade unions. Fifty-six per cent felt her promotion of private enterprise had been the right move, while almost half—48 per cent—thought she was also right to curb union power (with 37 per cent against). There was broad approval, too, for her reduction of the top rate of tax from 60p to 40p, backed by 46 per cent.

Her least popular policy? Despite evidence of falling prices, more reliable products and improved customer service, her decision to privatise Britain's major utilities remains startlingly unloved, backed by only 28 per cent, with 58 per cent nostalgic for the days of the nationalised British Telecom and British Rail. A solid 3 in 10 respondents, meanwhile, thought that Thatcher had been economically wrongheaded in the 1980s, and remained just as wrong today.

Despite her imagined lead over both Brown and Cameron, then, it looks as if a Thatcher in her political prime today would be best-advised to renationalise a few more of Britain's ailing banks (and a utility or two) to win round remaining doubters.

YouGov polled 2,539 British adults between 3rd and 6th April 2009

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