I was a hospital houseman when Mrs T came into power in 1979 and like many people, I have gone through different phases in my attitude towards the woman; I never voted for her, but in retrospect, I have little doubt in my mind that the country, beset as it was by industrial conflict and traditional left/right tensions, needed strong autocratic leadership to get it back onto an even keel. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s ‘winter of discontent’ meant that the UK was running at half speed, and even as a junior doctor, I was affected by mortuaries being closed, operations cancelled, and a sense of the country being held to ransom.
However her early success in rebooting the country, combined with the serendipity of the successful war in the Falkland Islands, began to affect her in the way that power often affects political leaders: self-confidence turned to arrogance, her certainties felt increasingly patronising, and her self-reliance excluded almost anyone else from her thinking.
Perhaps though, her impact was less about the person and more about the zeitgeist, and we should gauge her legacy against the spectrum that runs between society and the individual. When she came to power, the country seemed to be stuck at the collectivism end of this scale, with the state, the trades unions, and the whole sense of ‘other’ taking precedence over individuals, their freedoms, and the sense of ‘self.’ This position represented the apogee of the State as Big Brother, and whatever one’s political background, hindsight makes that situation look archaic and almost quaint.
With the pendulum at one extreme of its swing, it was inevitable that it would begin to move in the opposite direction, and it is perhaps moot to speculate whether Mrs Thatcher was cause or effect of this change. As it was, she was the right person in the right place at the right time, and influenced by her charisma and strong sense of direction, the country very quickly away from its collective extreme and towards the individualist one. Famously (if quoted in a slightly flawed context) she claimed that ‘there is no such thing as society,’ meaning that individuals had to look after themselves rather than relying on the Nanny State; she was probably right in suggesting that the balance between ‘self’ and ‘other’ was wrong, but the momentum that was created under her guidance drove the country so firmly towards individualism and consumerism that most of the benefits of collectivism, altruism, and overall human decency risked being lost.
Thus, the mid-1980s marked the start of the worst excesses of Western capitalism, with short-term benefit and self-aggrandisement appearing to subsume any sense of a broader society. It was the start of the ‘me me me’ generation, where ‘I want it, I want it all, and I want it now’ became the clarion call; greed and the lust for instant gratification became acceptable (nay, laudable) emotions, the credit bubble began to expand, Gordon Gecko took over Wall Street, and this country’s attitude to welfare and the more disadvantaged members of society reached their nadir.
It is no accident that when she was toppled from power in 1990 her autocratic style was replaced by the relatively meek and mild democracy of John Major, who tried to reintroduce the notion of consensus in decision-making. As is our wont in Britain, the counter-swing was too fast and too far, and the search for consensus led to political paralysis, with the endless debate over Europe hanging over the country for the best part of half a decade.
So for me, Thatcher represented a societal phenomenon, and showed how it is not just frozen food that needs ‘best before’ dates: three years of her abrasive style might have kickstarted our economy; eleven years meant that it ended at the other extreme, and left us with a legacy so toxic that we may never be able to rid ourselves of its selfish taint.
And in principle terms, she made me realise that the essence of leadership is to understand and use the changing balance between autocracy and democracy: rapid radical change needs autocracy, but smothers inclusivity and creativity. A more democratic approach allows ownership and ‘buy in’ but is too slow to be much help in a crisis. Having the skills to use both, in the appropriate ratios, is what really marks the successful leader.