Earlier this week I found myself in a confrontation with regular BUCF reader Jack Matthew over a flippant remark I made regarding Thatcher’s attitude to terrorism. I am loathed to admit he might have more of a point than I first cared to admit. I am currently in the process of studying for my impending Topics in British Politics exam and am revising Thatcher. In order to revise effectively I am looking beyond the core texts toward more contemporary editorial analyses. One I have stumbled across this week, combined with some elements of the core reading, suggests that Mrs Thatcher was far more pragmatic than we were led to believe.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Mrs Thatcher was prepared to make concessions in a number of areas. For example documents have come to light which show, despite her harsh rhetoric, Thatcher was trying to negotiate over the hunger strikes but she was repeatedly blocked by the IRA. The hunger strike began in March 1981 when Bobby Sands began the protest over living conditions for IRA prisoners in the Belfast jail. By the time it ended in October, ten inmates, including Sands, had died. In July, with four men already dead, Richard O’Rawe, the IRA spokesman in the Maze, and Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, its commanding officer in the jail, withdrew a demand that the British government treat IRA inmates as prisoners of war.
In a document sent on 5 July the government reportedly responded with its own concessions. It gave in to a number of their demands, including one that the prisoners would be allowed to “wear their own clothes … provided these clothes were approved by the prison authorities”. According to Mr O’Rawe, he and Mr McFarlane agreed at the time that the British government’s concessions were enough to end the strike but were told that the IRA council had rejected them. Therefore it was the IRA that betrayed the hunger strikers and not Mrs Thatcher and her government as the myth has led us to believe.
Mrs Thatcher was a woman who surely made mistakes as do all great figures faced with less than desirable conditions. But what I have learned through my studies and something that suprised me, is that her strength lay not in her ‘bully boy nature’ but in her collective attitude that in many ways stood at odds with the Iron Lady image she liked to portray. Don’t get me wrong, she was an Iron Lady. When she made her mind up, usually after consultation with her allies, she was intransigent. She was incredibly principled and formed her policies around those principles some of which she rightly refused to compromise on. She fought tooth and nail against opposition both within and outside her own party to get where she was and it was inbuilt in to her mentality to fight for her position because she always had to.
However it was when her principle over-rode her pragmatism and her ability to ‘bend’ that she sealed her own fate. The century’s most exceptional peacetime Prime Minister fell because she forgot what made her great in the first place; her ability to respond to public and private opinion and adapt her policy platform to suit. Thatcher, love her or loathe her, was the people’s Prime Minister. She wasn’t just liked by her grassroot supporters, she was adored and the grassroots never really recovered from her forced removal. She was seen as the first leader to truly represent them and their ideals and her removal denied them their champion.
Furthermore her policies, even those most divisive like the Miners and Trades Union policies, were supported by a clear majority of the public seeing her returned to office 3 times with large majorities which was unprecedented in modern British history. However it was when she defied public opinion with the Poll Tax, when she refused to bend that the country turned against her. Had she not imposed such a policy and refused to delpoy the pragmatism that had served her so well, Thatcher would surely have took us to victory in 1992 and her place in history would have been even more unquestionable than it is today.