Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Thatcher Years - and me

Watching Maurice Saatchi discussing Margaret Thatcher’s legacy tonight (Channel 4 News) made me feel really old. Maurice, the originator of the “Labour’s not working” campaign of 1979, focused on why Mrs T was a winner: she was a conviction politician whom people believed in, even they didn’t like the medicine.

She wasn’t an oily creature like Blair or Cameron; or a machine politician like Brown or Callaghan; a lieutenant such as the likeable John Major. Having spent from 1979 to 1997 working on local and national elections, that was the view on the doorstep.

Now, 33 years on, I reflect on this politician who had an influence on my life like no other. I have never been a great believer in the inspirational leader model. There was only one St Paul who, struck down on the road to Damascus, changed from persecutor to proselytiser. Mrs T was not a C20th female St Paul, but she did change Britain.

So why did I become a Conservative of the centre? I had come to England in late 1974, when it was just ghastly: three-day weeks; the Mussolini of the coal mines trying to bully government; the collapse of government itself. In 1976, I was working as a magazine journalist when the NUJ held stop-work meetings to demand 25% pay rises because that was the current rate of inflation. Soon after, the IMF bailed out the British Treasury. By 1978, under “Sunny Jim’ Callaghan, Britain was going downhill rapidly.

I married in 1977 and was faced with either staying or convincing my bride to go to Australia. Not an easy task. To stay meant doing something that would help change the appalling situation Britain was in. So I joined the Conservatives and started knocking on doors.

It was hard work but Mrs T won in 1979. Then followed the disappointment of the electorate – “why wasn’t everything being changed immediately”. In particular, council tenants wanted right-to-buy legislation introduced “now!” so they could buy their house and finally feel “at home”. It is sneered at now, but in the early 1980s it was the greatest social change that these people could imagine. And she delivered it.

In 1981, I was elected as a County Councillor in Hampshire with a thumping majority and in 1984 set up a PR consultancy business. [Unlike 2013, banks were very keen to help you get started. In fact, we knew the manager personally and he would drop regularly in for a cuppa to see how we were progressing].

There were, of course, ups-and-downs. Prescription charges were introduced which angered many, although few paid them. In the South, the government’s stand against the NUM was very fully supported – Arthur Scargill was deeply loathed – but police tactics seemed brutal at times. On the other hand, the Thatcher governments spent more on the NHS than their Labour predecessors did; they started the expansion of higher education which has been the Conservatives’ great legacy for reducing social division.

As for my political career, it ended in 1985 when I realised that a young family and a consultancy business were not compatible with being a county politician. I stood down and focused on election campaigns at local and Westminster level. I also attended party conferences: Bournemouth and Brighton were OK but Blackpool was always dire – a grubby, rundown seaside resort at the end of the season by the brown, windswept Irish Sea.

However, it was in Blackpool in the late 1980s that Mrs T and the party gave their support to Eastern Europe’s emerging voices and the leaders of their nascent democracies. Perhaps that was the major legacy of the later Thatcher era: very active, visible support for the new nations emerging from the Soviet umbrella.

I worked on the 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 and 1997 General Elections in Winchester and surrounding electorates. By the end of the Major period, the aura of 1979 and the energy to give people the opportunity to develop had completely run out. I stepped down from party membership and have been on the sidelines since. I was never a die-hard Thatcherite or a “Tory”. Now, all conviction has gone from UK politics, no matter what party interests you. It’s just three 40-somethings leading dull, pragmatic operations.

With the passing of Mrs T, the era of conviction politics has finally been buried. But her support for enterprise and personal development benefited me, my colleagues, suppliers, families and the taxman. We developed a £1.3m turnover business from hard work and the enterprise-supportive atmosphere of nearly three decades ago. My life has moved on but I still hold Mrs T’s legacy in great respect. I’d hate to think of the alternative history of the UK if she’d lost the 1979 election.