Thatcher's many achievements were a mixed blessing
Mrs Thatcher feared no one - including the Prince of Wales, writes Paul Finch
Margaret Thatcher’s achievements were political and economic, rather than cultural. They proved a mixed blessing, but there is no denying there were plenty of them. In the words of David Allford, of YRM fame, she ‘gave the country the corporate enema it needed’, which included breaking up inefficient public monopolies and encouraging wealth creation. She faced down powerhungry, anti-democratic bullies (Galtieri, Scargill). Other pluses included modernisation of the City (Big Bang), the right-to-buy legislation originally dreamt up by Harold Wilson’s policy team but never implemented, and the scrapping of exchange controls (not much remembered now but truly radical at the time).
On the other hand, before becoming prime minister she enthusiastically closed grammar schools, despite having benefited from one. She embraced the EU and helped prepare the ground for the federal Europe she feared via the Single European Act. Her interventions in local democracy didn’t last - the ill-conceived poll tax was immediately scrapped by John Major. The abolition of significant civic authorities like the Greater London Council was a mistake which had to be reversed. It has taken much longer to start to restore the relationship between business and local authorities, which she ended by grabbing business rates and sending them to the Treasury. She was nothing if not a centraliser.
Other negatives were the failure to promote sufficient social house building and the ending of minimum housing design dimensions, aided and abetted by that nickel-plated national treasure, Michael Heseltine.
In respect of architects, Mrs T’s impact was revolutionary - the era of the public architect came to an end
In respect of architects, Mrs T’s impact was near revolutionary - because the era of the public architect came to a rapid end. Put simply, if you didn’t want public housing then you didn’t need the municipal architect’s department, though outsourcing via compulsory competitive tendering was another failed policy.
In respect of architecture, it is hard to see much design legacy except in the sense that use class order changes and increased commercial development generated work.
Of course the public figure who made the running in respect of architecture during the 1980s was the Prince of Wales. Thatcher never became embroiled in his battles with the profession, except in a tangential but significant way in relation to Rod Hackney, onetime RIBA president and confidant to the Prince. This resulted in a now an almost forgotten episode, but one which had constitutional importance.
‘By chance’, the Prince happened to be travelling on a train at the same time as Rod, and they shared a conversation about Mrs Thatcher’s policies. The result was front page headlines in The Daily Mirror about the Prince’s fears of inheriting a ‘divided Britain’. Poor old Rod thought he was doing the Prince’s bidding by acting as a conduit for these views, and probably was. Mrs T was not amused and the telephone lines to Australia, which the Prince was visiting when the story appeared, were red-hot. What the hell was he playing at? The result was the royal disowning of Rod, with the claim that the conversation was supposed to have been confidential.
One of Mrs Thatcher’s virtues, evident from this story, was her refusal to be pushed around by the establishment, including monarchy. She introduced the fresh air of new thinking throughout public life through her refusal to carry on with the grim consensus that had made Britain a byword for decline, defeatism and incompetence in the mid- to late-1970s.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man - or woman as it turned out. The creeps who have been celebrating her death are a reminder of why we needed her.