Comparisons are for the most part unhelpful but there is one point worth thinking over, says a man who served in Thatcher's first cabinetby David Howell / July 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
As the current political turmoil deepens the cry goes up for strong leadership, with Margaret Thatcher’s name inevitably invoked. “Oh yes,” you hear it said, “she would surely have settled things by now.”
But would she, and could she? And is the comparison between her premiership, beginning just under 40 years ago, and the present situation in any way helpful or valid?
One could begin by remembering that Thatcher had supreme contempt for referendums, so would not have been in the position of her beleaguered successor anyway. But that aside the answer is still is mostly No—simply because circumstances over the decades have altered almost beyond recognition. Indeed, one wonders if the comparison is made so often just because Thatcher and Theresa May are both women.
Yet I believe in one respect the lessons of Thatcher’s times could be of real assistance to the present government. To that we will come in a moment.
First, though, the differences and there is one obvious and fundamental one. Thatcher had a parliamentary majority—modest at first but much bigger later on, and May does not.
Thatcher could be sure of getting her way in the Commons. May is a general almost without troops, relying on rapid day-to-day manoeuvres and surprise tactics not to be trapped or surrounded.
The majority is what gave Thatcher her authority and dominance. It was this that allowed her to be sharp to the point of rudeness to all and sundry round the Cabinet table. Not for her the calm and balanced summing up after hearing all the different viewpoints. On the contrary the Thatcher style was to begin with her own emphatic opinion and then see who was unwise or daring enough to disagree.
One can argue as to whether this was strength or dominance and whether it was this which gave her successive and growing Commons majorities, or whether the majorities begat the growing dominance. But either way this was her authority and she certainly used it.
The second obvious point is that the two prime ministers are at different junctures in history. The Thatcher Cabinet team who assembled for the first time that May morning in 1979 mostly sensed that they (we) were at a watershed. There were to be bitter disputes about precisely which way to go, and how fast. Heads would roll and doubters…