The triumph of an unreasonable person

It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. In November 1990, I was one of several Conservative ministers who had the painful task, after the first ballot in the leadership election, to tell Margaret Thatcher that it was in her own best interest that she should stand down. I did so because I feared that she would be humiliated in the next ballot. Denis Thatcher, I believe, was of the same opinion. But she was extremely upset to receive this unwelcome advice from people she regarded as supporters. Later, I also urged her to back John Major as her successor because he was the most likely candidate to protect her legacy. I still believe that was the right decision.

But what exactly is Margaret Thatcher's legacy? It is often said that New Labour was part of her legacy. By inflicting three successive election defeats on Labour while she transformed the economy, she forced Labour both to go back to the centre and to recognise the changed realities of Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. This was not an accident. Keith Joseph, her intellectual mentor, in a party conference speech, said that one day there would be a Labour leader who would tell his party that capitalism and markets were the best means of improving the living standards of the people. When that happened that would be the most important achievement of the Conservative Party. This was part of Joseph's pursuit of the "common ground" as opposed to the "middle ground". When Tony Blair became prime minister, got rid of Clause Four and accepted the mixed economy, Joseph and Thatcher's dream was realised.

In spite of the recognition she receives worldwide, Margaret Thatcher's legacy is still disputed in Britain. There is a view that somehow her reforms could have been realised less painfully or at a slower pace. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that progress depends on unreasonable people.
If Margaret Thatcher had been more "reasonable" she would probably have achieved nothing. The point was made in a brilliant pamphlet written by the Conservative MP Timothy Raison, a member of the One-Nation Group. He expressed the paradox that, in order to bring about "One Nation", it was necessary first to divide and to confront special interests such as the trade unions. Only then could a more prosperous and more harmonious society emerge.

Curiously, some Conservative politicians have associated themselves with her critics. The phrase "the Nasty Party" was a particularly ill-advised example and only handed a propaganda weapon to the party's opponents. It took great courage for Margaret Thatcher to do what she did. It requires much less courage merely to defend her, and that is the least she deserves from Conservatives.

Margaret Thatcher's strong opposition to the establishment of the euro and to a federal Europe ironically helped bring about her own downfall. But her views became increasingly accepted and eventually, after a period of turmoil, the settled view of the party and probably of the country. On foreign affairs, she was a supporter of Nato and strong defences but sufficiently flexible to see the opportunity to work with Mikhail Gorbachev. During her time, Britain certainly punched above its weight.

Margaret Thatcher was not a typical Conservative leader - very different from those who preceded and followed her, although she had a traditional Conservative respect for established institutions. She was more of a 19th-century Gladstonian Liberal. Peel would have approved of her policies, Disraeli less so.

It was always to be expected that after Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party would revert to a more conventional Conservatism but Thatcherism would be absorbed into the Conservative mainstream tradition. John Major correctly saw that, after a period of "permanent revolution", what the country wanted was a respite and a "kinder, gentler" Conservatism. David Cameron successfully married her economic liberalism with his own social liberalism.

There have been opportunistic arguments, after the recent financial crisis, that Margaret Thatcher pushed liberalisation too hard. But as the world economy recovers, these arguments are now losing traction. Margaret Thatcher rescued a country that was "the sick man of Europe" by taking tough decisions on government borrowing, inflation and trade union reform. Britain's economy recovered, as did its reputation, making us a model for other countries.

Margaret Thatcher changed British attitudes to business and wealth creation. Although the envy of success and "tall poppies" did not disappear, there was a new enterprise culture and a wider understanding of the need for a successful private sector.

I remember her once saying in a speech, “Our job is to change attitudes." I thought, "Politicians can't do that," but I was wrong.

Margaret Thatcher's reforms have lasted because they moved with the tide of history towards globalisation, free trade and a smaller state. A far-sighted example was her decision to open the City of London to foreign investment and competition, which established London even more as the leading financial centre of Europe. Typically, this decision was made despite the outraged protests of some leading supporters.

In my experience, Margaret Thatcher is always modest in conversation about her own achievements. I remember her once wistfully saying, "There are no final victories in politics." Circumstances can change; governments can reverse the decisions of their predecessors. So far, Margaret Thatcher's achievements have stood the test of time remarkably well.

Lord Lamont was chief secretary to the Treasury in November 1990. He served as chancellor under John Major until May 1993.