Baroness Thatcher

This week has been a nostalgic week for me. On Saturday I went to a reunion at my university and met friends I had not seen for years. On Monday Margaret Thatcher died. And Tuesday was the twenty-first anniversary of my first election to Parliament.

So Iíve been doing a lot of thinking about the Britain of the 1970s, when I was at university and the Britain of today. And not just Britain, but also the world.

I find it almost incredible to reflect how different things are. In the 1970s we still lived in fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, apartheid was at its height in South Africa, trades unions were out of control, our nationalised industries were hopelessly inefficient and we all believed the Britain was set on a course of inevitable economic decline Ė and most of us had never heard of the Falkland Islands.

It is no exaggeration to say that one woman Ė Margaret Thatcher Ė changed all that. I know that she is a profoundly controversial figure, and I must honestly say that that I was not one of her greatest supports in her early years, but so many of the good things we now take for granted are down to her determination and beliefs.

Abroad she played a major part in tearing down the Iron Curtain, ending apartheid and creating the European single market. At home her programme of trade union reform, privatisation and liberalisation of the economy gave Britain a new chance.

Our country is now a different and, I believe, a better place, in large part thanks to her. And perhaps her greatest achievement was even to persuade her opponents that they needed to change too Ė I donít think itís controversial now to say that New Labour was a product of Thatcherism.

I had the privilege of meeting her on several occasions and always found her both intimidating and charming. The secret of her success, I honestly believe, was that she was always more cautious and pragmatic than her public image. Yes, she knew what had to be done, and yes, she would express herself with great clarity, but she also knew the limits of political reality. She fell when she lost that knack and pushed through the Community Charge or Poll Tax while needlessly alienating her colleagues in the debate over Europe.

One woman changed the course of our history Ė thatís quite an epitaph.

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