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I am an experienced online journalist and political editor working for Trinity Mirror papers in the West Midlands and the North East, based in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Westminster.

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The economy of the West Midlands was devastated under Margaret Thatcher's Government - and it still hasn't recovered.

That was the view not of a Labour left-winger or trade unionist, but of Conservative MP Peter Tapsell who rose to proclaim his judgment in a Commons debate.

thatcher
He’d been listening to a Tory colleague talking in glowing terms about the Budget delivered in 1981, during Lady Thatcher’s time in office.

Apparently unable to bear any more, he rose to his feet – intervening on fellow Conservative Kenneth Clarke – and warned that the Budget in question had destroyed “the base of British industry”, adding: “The West Midlands has never recovered. “

Sir Peter said: “The 1981 Budget is the reason why now, with the collapse of our financial industry, we do not have a proper industrial base."

That was in 2008. I don’t know what exactly Sir Peter has been saying this week, but I suspect he’s kept his criticisms to himself.

Nonetheless, the comment – one short statement in Commons debate, but one that must have surprised some of the younger Conservative MPs (Sir Peter has been an MP since 1966) – illustrates how divisive she could be.

And she became perhaps an even more divisive figure once out of office than she had been in power. Her legend grew as she retreated from public life, her opponents on the left blaming her not only for the things she actually did but for events taking place two decades after she left Downing Street in tears.

If bankers behaved badly in 2007 it was down to a culture of greed created by Lady Thatcher’s government. If local councils outsourced services, or a Labour Health Secretary introduced market-style reforms to the NHS, it was the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, as if she was somehow still in charge not only of her own party but all the others as well.

Her legend grew as she retreated from public life, her opponents on the left blaming her not only for the things she actually did but for events taking place two decades after she left Downing Street in tears.

Immediately after it was announced that Lady Thatcher had died, the tributes poured in. But it wasn’t long before critics had their say. Labour politician Ken Livingston, for example, appeared on Newsnight to attack her record.

And quite right too, in a way. If we are to look back on Lady Thatcher’s life then it can’t be with rose-tinted spectacles. Criticism must be heard as well as praise.

But left-wingers who insist they oppose everything she did may be guilty of ignoring some of the changes which have become so ingrained in our society that people from all political traditions take them for granted.

She inherited a tax system in which the “higher” rate of income tax, the equivalent of the 40p rate today was 83 per cent. Fewer people paid the higher rate in those days – you had to be earning around the equivalent of £100,000 in today’s money (allowing for inflation) before it kicked in. But how many people today think 83 per cent is a reasonable tax rate for that level of income?

Yes, there are many who would like the extremely wealthy to pay more. Bankers receiving millions in bonuses, Russian oligarchs building property empires in central London, Philip Green and his retail empire.

But we’re talking about salaries above £100,000. It’s four times the median full-time salary, but it’s less than the headteacher of a large secondary school earns. Perhaps some might think 50 per cent or so is fair, but 83 per cent?

Put it this way – nobody to my knowledge today calls explicitly for that level of income tax on that level of salary or anything like it, even if they might in general terms condemn Lady Thatcher for “cutting taxes on the rich”.

They’ve also been quiet, even if they attack “privatisation”, in demanding that the state should own a car factory or airline, as it did before Thatcher started selling things off (or carried on Labour’s policy of selling things off – it was the Labour government led by Jim Callaghan before her which part-privatised BP, for example).

That’s not to say every policy has won acceptance today. The privatisation of the utilities is one example. Then there’s the poll tax, obviously.

Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – effectively state sanctioned prejudice against part of our society – was inexcusable.

And on some occasions she relished confrontation without a thought for the effects on people’s lives.

It may have been true that the coal industry could not continue as it was. It may also have been true that the trade unions had too much power.

But in taking on Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers, she appeared to spare not a thought for the devastated communities that would be left behind in mining towns and villages following her victory.

Yet the legend of Lady Thatcher has grown out of all proportion to her achievements or her failings. She has become a towering figure in our imaginations, superhuman in her ability to mould human nature according to her will.

Hence, 23 years after she left office – more than half of those years under a Labour government – much that still goes wrong today is still blamed on the society which she created, as if governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were powerless to stamp their own mark. And, indeed, as if Britain in the 1970s had been a shining beacon of wealth and equality, where industry boomed and selfishness was unknown, rather than the sick man of Europe.

Lady Thatcher was a lucky politician. She was able to fund many of her policies through taxation of North Sea Gas.

And she faced an opposition which was divided and sometimes behaved as if attempting to win votes was beneath it.

Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his 2005 speech to the Labour conference, argued that his own party shared responsibility – blame, perhaps – for the Thatcher era.

The 1970s, of course, were no Utopia. Britain did need to change, urgently.

But, Mr Blair said, Labour at the time was unwilling to accept this, and turned in on itself instead.

He told his party: “United, we should have been the advocates of economic and industrial change in the changing world. And if we had been, how many fewer lives would have been destroyed? How much harsh and bitter medicine for some of the poorest in our society might have been avoided?”

If the Thatcher legend serves a useful purpose for Labour and the left in general, it should be to remind them what happens when Labour gives up on listening to people and responding to their concerns.

Read more: http://www.birminghampost.net/comment/birmingham-columnists/more-columnists/2013/04/12/jonathan-walker-margaret-thatcher-a-towering-figure-in-our-own-imaginations-65233-33156186/

 


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Jonathan Walker Political Editor of the Birmingham Post, Birmingham Mail, Sunday Mercury, Coventry Telegraph, Newcastle Journal, Newcastle Chronicle and Sunday Sun.

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Email jonathan@walkerjon.com (but please send press releases to my work email which is
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