No other politician cuts a divisive figure as Baroness, or as she was at the time of her time in Downing Street, Mrs Thatcher in modern British politics and recent history. Most Britons I know have a strong opinion on Mrs Thatcher, which can range from almost unquestioning adoration and adulation, to something approaching utter loathing and detestation. Even those who were born after 1990 often have very strong opinions. The passion with which people agree or disagree with her policies, and the intensity with which people like or dislike her personality, emphasize the importance of Mrs Thatcher’s time as the prime minister of the UK. Whatever opinions people have, there is no doubt that Mrs Thatcher was one of the most important prime ministers that Britain has ever had.
Mrs Thatcher’s government transformed Britain. The Britain of 1990 was a different, and almost unrecognizable, place from when she had entered Downing Street in 1979. Policies such as privatization, and liberalization, brought about economic prosperity, but her policies also resulted in many regions and industries being left behind. Politicians and historians will long debate the merits and otherwise of her government, but whether for good or for bad, her government was the most important in the second half of the twentieth century. As with any other successful political leaders, she knew how to exploit the chances circumstances offered her, and capitalize on the feebleness of her opponents.
The succeeding governments, led by Mr Major, Mr Blair and Mr Brown, were attempting to make sense of and adjustments to Mrs Thatcher’s government. There was no reversal of her policies. The policies changes were about nuances, not fundamental shifts, and the political parties pursued broadly similar narratives. The paradigm had shifted during Mrs Thatcher’s government, and for that reason, it may be argued that there has been something approaching a post-Thatcher consensus in British politics, at least until now. An idea does not always die with the person associated with it, but sometimes it feels like that an era ends with the passing of the person who had embodied the idea, and it seems like such an instance.
Mr Cameron’s government is the first since Mrs Thatcher’s to be transformative, not because Mr Cameron necessarily wishes to be such, but the fiscal and economic circumstances of the country are such that his government needs to make changes. Clement Attlee’s post-war government created a political consensus, which had lasted, broadly speaking, until Mrs Thatcher’s government. Now, the political consensus created by Mrs Thatcher looks like to be at its end. Perhaps the Thatcher government, and the era of post-Thatcher consensus, will now pass from the realm of political debate into historical scholarship.