How will history judge Margaret Thatcher?

Margaret Thatcher has been judged by her temperament, rather than her policies, Dr Roland Quinalt will argue. Photo:

Dr Roland Quinalt is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London and author of British Prime Ministers and Democracy, from Disraeli to Blair (2011).

Dr Eliza Filby is a lecturer in Modern British History at King's College, London and author of 'God and Mrs Thatcher: The battle for Britain's soul' due to be published this year.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher's death has laid bare how vividly divided the public feel about her achievements in office, as the furious debate on her legacy continues.

For Dr Eliza Filby, lecturer in Modern British History at King's College, London, history will take a less polarised view of her time in office.

As witnessed this week, Mrs Thatcher still divides the nation. She is loved and loathed in equal measure. Those wounds will take a long time to heal. History will judge her time in office less emotively. Her legacy on Britain society is in no doubt. Privatisation, deregulation of city of London, turning Britain into a property owning democracy, curbing union power and overseeing deindustrialization, changed our social and economic life irrevocably.

Dr Roland Quinault, Senior Research Fellow at the University of London, says her achievements are being exaggerated by those on the left and right:

Since her death there has been a general agreement that she was the most significant prime minister in the second half of the twentieth century. She is much more than a footnote in history and there is no question of her impact, but both her critics and admirers have exaggerated the nature of her contribution and achievement in various respects.

That she changed the face of modern Britain ‘irrevocably’ can be in no doubt, Dr Filby argues, particularly the economic landscape:

Privatisation, deregulation of city of London, turning Britain into a property owning democracy, curbing union power and overseeing deindustrialization, she changed our social and economic life irrevocably

US Regan and Thatcher during the annual G7 summitt in Toronto, in June 1988.
US Regan and Thatcher during the annual G7 summitt in Toronto, in June 1988. Credit: Reuters/Gary Hershorn

Yet both historians point out the gaps between her bellicose rhetoric and her actual policies. For Dr Filby, she was a leader full of paradoxes: a Conservative who did little to conserve the values of her party:

She spoke about the values of thrift but oversaw the introduction of a casino capitalism where credit rocketed. Britain ceased to be a nation of wise savers but big spenders.

For Dr Quinault, her most significant achievement as PM was her contribution to the end of the cold war, through two policies: the firm line she took against the Soviet threat but also her readiness to embrace detente when the opportunity to arose.

Her international reputation is likely to remain higher than her domestic one, particularly if the free market reforms that she espoused are no longer regarded either as economically productive or socially cohesive.

The innumerable visual images and sound bites of Thatcher during her time in office captured her determined and uncompromising stance on public occasions but Quinault argues they failed to reflect the more nuanced and sometimes cautious nature of her policies in practice.

She played up to the image of the 'iron lady' in a way which strengthened her reputation abroad but oversimplified her stance on domestic issues and created an image of a heartless uncaring leader that was far removed from her private behaviour.

For example, after she said 'There is no such thing as society' she then went on to talk about how important it was to help other people.

It has often been argued her market reforms sowed the seeds of the financial crisis but this is incorrect, according to Dr Filby, who says she has been given an enormous amount of ‘blame’ for the actions of her precedessors:

It is wrong to blame Thatcher for everything. Most of the things we assume we're done by her were in fact brought in under John Major. Railway privatisation, vilification of single mothers, closure of the mines. We can't blame her for the financial crises either. New Labour continued a light touch regulation policy on the City even more than Thatcher would have done.

Sir John Major and Baroness Margaret Thatcher together in London in 2009.
Sir John Major and Baroness Margaret Thatcher together in London in 2009. Credit: Press Association

For Quinault, the Iron Lady’s reputation was built through the media’s reflection of her skills as a speaker. Skills Filby traces back to her father’s role as a Methodist preacher:

She was a woman of devout faith, always assured of the Biblical basis of her values and indeed the most religious prime minister we have had since Gladstone.

The magnificence of her skills as a orator has prevented her legacy being based on an informed assessment of her policies, which Dr Quinault argues are more democratic than their delivery would assume.

She was a democrat by conviction, but not by temperament.

For Dr Filby her achievement was to use that temperament to silence critics and bolster supporters, across the House of Commons and on the world stage, boosting the UK’s international reputation considerably throughout her time as leader:

At the end of the 1970s there were questions over our right to be 'at the table' UN Security Council etc, but by the time she left office in 1990 these questions were no longer there.