Iron Lady was vulnerable says Sheffield academic

Proffessor Matthew Flinders, from Sheffield University.
Proffessor Matthew Flinders, from Sheffield University.
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The ‘Iron Lady’ may have been more vulnerable and isolated than many people understood, according to a Sheffield University academic.

Professor Matthew Flinders, professor of parliamentary government and governance in the university’s politics department has shared his views on former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, pictured below, who died today.

He says: “Can it really be almost a quarter of a century since one of the most defining moments of my own personal political history?

“I can still remember the day as if it were yesterday. An A-level Politics seminar on the fifth floor of Swindon College; November 28, 1990; a bright and clear day; and suddenly the door bursts open and someone screams ‘She’s gone. It’s over, she’s gone’.

“Exactly who had gone and what was over were not immediately obvious to me, but in a strange way they didn’t need to be, because at a deeper level what was obvious from the reactions of everybody around me was that a distinct chapter in British political history had ended.

“Two decades on and as a professor of politics, I clearly have a much sharper awareness of exactly who Thatcher was and what was thought to be over – or not over as the case proved to be – in terms of a distinct approach to governing, but the announcement of her death takes me back to that seminar room and that strange feeling a distinct chapter in British political history has, once again, ended.

“But what can I say that has not already been said about this grocer’s daughter?

“What can I write that will separate this obituary from the countless others that are at this moment being written?

“The answer to these questions lies not in outlining the contours of Thatcher’s political career – an already well-furrowed literary terrain – but in teasing out exactly why her approach to politics provoked such strong reactions and how she managed to cast such a long shadow over the past, present and future of British politics.

“First and possibly foremost, Thatcher forged a new relationship between the state and the market.

“Having witnessed the trials and tribulations of the Edward Heath government in the mid 1970s and then the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in the late 1970s, Thatcher was adamant that the relationship between the state and the market had to change.

“From reforming the state to reducing the power of the trade unions, from privatization to economic reform and from European affairs to selling-off council houses, Thatcher undoubtedly shifted the political-economy of Britain in ways that subsequent Prime Ministers have sought to modify or amend, but not significant alter.

“Indeed, it is possible to argue a post-Thatcherite consensus appears to exist in a thread that runs through John Major, Tony, Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

“Whether this is viewed as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing is, for the moment, secondary to the fact Thatcher’s legacy has cast a shadow both far and wide.

“If her policies were distinctive then, so too, was her uncompromising political style.

“The ‘Iron Lady’ was a conviction politician in the sense she believed in the capacity of her political philosophy and economic convictions to deliver positive social change.

“There was no middle-way; you were either with her or against her.

“From her ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Conservative Party in October 1980, through to her European Union rebate negotiations, Thatcher was in many ways the original ‘Ronseal politician’ – to steal a coalition phrase – in the sense her rhetoric was generally backed-up by subsequent political reality.

“There is, however, a need to dig a little deeper.

“An obituary should expose the essence of a person and not simply repeat their achievements (or failures).

“To highlight Thatcher’s ideology or style – even to dissect the various subsequent forms of Thatcherism – are hardly new additions to a congested historical canvas.

“The twist or barb in the tail of this obituary is therefore not a focus on Thatcher the politician, but on Thatcher the person.

“Framed in this manner, what one achieves is a quite unique perspective on a quite remarkable, but possibly isolated and vulnerable woman.

“To describe the ‘Iron Lady’ as vulnerable might appear to some readers as an almost ridiculous statement, but even the mighty Achilles had a weak heel.

“Indeed, if – as I will argue - Thatcher exhibited three potential vulnerabilities in her life, then it is possible to use these to further underline her remarkable career and achievements.

“First and foremost, Thatcher was a woman who succeeded in a man’s world.

“She became an MP in 1959, the first woman to lead a major British political party in 1975 and the first female Prime Minister in 1979.

“There is little doubt that, in some ways, being a women also brought advantages when faced with a political party that had overwhelmingly been educated in single sex public schools and were therefore ill-prepared to deal with a powerful woman, but it also brought with it a sense of exceptionalism and difference.

“A second source of vulnerability stemmed from the fact Thatcher was not ‘one of them’.

“Born the daughter of a grocery shop owner – indeed being brought up in the flat above the shop – she was not born into the ‘great and the good’ British political establishment.

“Indeed, resting between the lines of almost every political biography of Thatcher is a sense she was always in the Conservative Party, but never quite part of the Conservative Party; never quite accepted or respected by Tory grandees or elements of the political establishment.

“This is a critical issue as her outsider-within status arguably helps explain her style of governing and her almost clinical approach to defining friends and enemies.

“The final element of vulnerability has, I would argue, become clearest since her departure from frontline politics.

“Since leaving the House of Commons at the 1992 General Election - saying that this would allow her more freedom to speak her mind – what has been most striking is the manner in which she generally refrained from heckling from the political sidelines.

“Her illness may have played some role in this, but I sense there was also a degree of social and political isolation; a sense she no longer fitted in; a frustration her ‘there is no such thing as society’ speech was always taken out of context and used against her; or that anyone might want to hear what she had to say.

“I could be wrong but deep down I can’t help but think that maybe the ‘Iron Lady’ was a little softer than many of us understood.”