Ed Miliband's statement on Margaret Thatcher: full text

"Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life."

Mr Speaker, I want to join the Prime Minister in commemorating the extraordinary life and unique contribution of Margaret Thatcher.

And I want to join him in sending my deepest condolences to her children, Carol and Mark, the whole family and her many, many close friends.

Today is an opportunity for us to reflect on Margaret Thatcher’s personal achievements, her style of politics and her political legacy.

As the Prime Minister said, the journey from being the child of a grocer to Downing Street is an unlikely one.

And it is particularly remarkable because she was the daughter, not the son, of a grocer.

At each stage of her life, she broke the mould.

A woman at Oxford when there was not a single woman in the University who held a full professorship.

A woman chemist when most people assumed scientists had to be men.

A woman candidate for Parliament in 1950, against the opposition of some in her local party in Dartford, at the age of only 24.

A woman MP in 1959 when just 4 per cent of MPs in the whole of this House were women.

The only woman in the Cabinet when she was appointed in 1970.

And, of course, the first woman Prime Minister.

Mr Speaker, it is no wonder she remarked as early as 1965 in a speech to the National Union of Town Women’s Guilds’ Conference:

"In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."

I am sure some people in this House—and no doubt many more in the country - will agree with this sentiment.

Having broken so many conventions as a woman, it can’t be a coincidence that she was someone who in so many other areas of life was willing to take on the established orthodoxies.

Margaret Thatcher’s ability to overcome every obstacle in her path is just one measure of her personal strength.

And that takes me to her style of politics.

You can disagree with Margaret Thatcher.

But it is important to understand the kind of political leader she was.

What was unusual, was that she sought to be rooted in people’s daily lives, but she also believed that ideology mattered.

Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life.

And while she never would have claimed to be, or wanted to be seen as, an intellectual, she believed, and she showed, that ideas matter in politics.

In 1945 Mr Speaker, before the end of the War, she bought a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. There is even a story that she suggested that Conservative Central Office distribute it in the 1945 campaign.

She said, "it left a permanent mark on my political character."

And nobody can grasp Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, and Thatcherism, without also appreciating the ideas that were its foundation.

And the way in which they departed from the prevailing consensus of the time.

In typical home-spun style, on breakfast TV she said this in 1995:

"Consensus doesn’t give you any direction. It is like mixing all the constituent ingredients together and not coming out with a cake...Democracy is about the people being given a choice."

It was that approach that enabled her to define the politics of a whole generation and influence the politics of generations to come.

The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and I all came of age in the 1980s, when you defined your politics by being for or against what she was doing.

It’s fair to say, we took different paths.

Thirty years on, the people of Britain still argue about her legacy.

She was right to understand the sense of aspiration of people across the country.

She was right to recognise our economy needed to change.

She said in 1982:

"How absurd it will seem in a few years time that the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles Hotel."

She was right.

And in foreign policy, she was right to defend the Falklands and bravely reach out to new leadership in the Soviet Union.

And something often forgotten, Mr Speaker, she was the first political leader in any major country to warn of the dangers of climate change.

Long before anyone thought of hugging a huskie.

But it would be dishonest and not in keeping with the principles that Margaret Thatcher stood for, even on this day, not to be open with this House about the strong opinions and the deep divisions there were, and are, over what she did.

In mining areas, like the one I represent, communities felt angry and abandoned.

Gay and lesbian people felt stigmatised by measures like section 28, which today’s Conservative Party has rightly repudiated.

And it was no accident that when he became leader of the Conservative Party, the Right Hon Member for Chingford wrote a pamphlet, called There is Such a Thing as Society.

And on the world stage, as this Prime Minister rightly said in 2006, when he was Leader of the Opposition, she made the wrong judgement about Nelson Mandela and about sanctions in South Africa.

Mr Speaker, debates about her and what she represented will continue for many years to come.

This is a mark of her significance as a political leader.

Someone with deep convictions, willing to act on them.

As she put it:

"Politics is more when you have convictions than a matter of multiple manoeuvrings to get you through the problems of the day."

And as a person, nothing became her so much as the manner of her final years.

The loss of her beloved husband, Denis, and her struggle with illness.

She bore both with the utmost dignity and courage.

The same courage she showed decades earlier after the atrocity of the Brighton bombing.

And Mr Speaker, I will always remember seeing her at the Cenotaph in frail health but determined to pay her respect to our troops and do her duty by the country.

Whatever your view of her, Margaret Thatcher was a unique and towering figure.

I disagree with much of what she did.

But I respect what her death means to the many, many people who admired her.

And I honour her personal achievements.

On previous occasions, we have come to this House to remember the extraordinary Prime Ministers who have served our nation.

Today, we also remember a Prime Minister who defined her age.

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories