Tribute to Margaret Thatcher in the Daily Telegraph: She was proof that by making the case for what you believe in, you can change minds

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph 

I was born in 1975, the year Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party, and was in a GCSE class when I heard that she had resigned. Mine hadn’t been a particularly Tory childhood, having been dragged along to CND marches by my mother and lectured about the miners’ strike by teachers at my school in Leeds. As the only prime minister I had even been aware of, I wasn’t able to put her achievements in any kind of context. It was only later that I became a fan, particularly after I started to study economics. At the time, I was just fascinated.

Even though I didn’t follow the details of the debates, I knew while I was growing up that there was a battle going on. Many of those I met on the Left despaired of Britain and thought that we would be better off as part of Europe. Mrs Thatcher presented a clear and confident alternative to this counsel of despair. She understood not just that we had to compete with the rest of the world, but that we could. She believed that attitude was all-important – that an individual could achieve things, provided they worked hard and persevered, and so could a country. Decline was not inevitable.

As a female role model, she also presented a striking alternative to the women I had been introduced to at Greenham Common by my mother. She challenged the idea that collectivist feminism was the way to help women get on. Rather than paying lip service and practising tokenism, she took practical steps that gave women control over their own lives. In particular, the introduction of individual taxation for women in 1988 was a step change in their economic position: previously, a wife’s income had been seen as part of her husband’s for tax purposes. She was also the master of “show, don’t tell”, demonstrating that a woman could get to the top, and could deliver.

What I realised in particular, as I became interested in politics, was that the Left’s approach to equalising opportunities, especially within Westminster, took the form of “push politics”. Labour tried to control supply through all-women shortlists, through dividing different groups into factions, by imposing regulation to ensure diversity. This was politics as a sausage-machine, where changing the make-up of ingredients would alter the output. Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, stoked people’s demand to become involved. For her, failure or success depended on character, not background. It was a meritocratic vision. Hers was a “pull factor”: she made politics so exciting, so engaging, that people wanted to do it.

Mrs Thatcher also showed how important ideas are, making the Conservative Party the natural home of radical thought. For such a resolutely practical politician – who spoke about the national finances in the manner of a housewife stretching the family budget – it was this fascination with ideas that marks her out as much as anything. She was not an intellectual but she knew, and listened to, a lot of people who were. She actually read Hayek and Friedman. She drew into her inner circle thinkers like Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman. She liked ideas the more strongly expressed, the better. But they had to be ideas with a purpose, capable of being forged into policies that were not just right for Britain, but also popular. At the start of the Seventies, privatisation was an idea from the fringe. By the end of the Eighties, it was accepted wisdom across the Western world, and was about to be put into practice from Dresden to Shanghai.

This, I believe, is why Mrs Thatcher would be proud of her legacy within her party over the past few years. Thanks to her audacity, those on the Left became the defenders of the status quo – and they still are. There is no comparison with the massive expansion of ideas, of debate, that has taken place on the Right. The number of Conservative backbench groups that has emerged during this parliament is huge. This is part of a welcome trend towards people considering “What do I think?” or “What do I want to achieve?” when they enter politics, rather than “Which tribe am I part of?” Like me, many of the MPs who arrived in Parliament in 2010 saw Mrs Thatcher largely from afar she was part of the background of our lives rather than at their centre. But what we did notice was the rising confidence of our country, and the aspirational, can-do attitude it created. She was proof that good ideas, well argued and pursued with determination, can succeed.

In this spirit, these new Tory MPs are developing policies on subjects from defence to infrastructure to mental health. The Free Enterprise Group that I helped to launch in 2011, and which is now led by my colleague Kwasi Kwarteng, is making the case for the positive benefits of free-market economics to the country. It recognises, as Thatcher did, that when a case is made, public opinion can and will shift.

This is not her only gift to us. In focusing on the individual and the family, she was in tune with the future. She prepared Britain for the revolution in technology. Flattened hierarchies, greater efficiency, more focus on individual performance and reward – the importance of these has only increased with globalisation. Human capital now dominates economics, with the correlation between international test scores and economic growth doubling over the last 30 years. Today, you can start a business from your living room, but it was Thatcher who first told you that you should.

In other ways, Thatcher was more modern than is generally realised, especially in the social changes that were accelerated by the economic forces she unleashed. It was in the Eighties that many more women, particularly those with children, entered the workplace – to the extent that more British mothers went out to work than French or German. Despite all its rhetoric about equality, this position was reversed under Labour. Attitudes towards gay people changed dramatically under Thatcher, too. And a new generation grew up knowing that its horizons were not limited to Europe.

Of course, the context of politics has changed, and Britain today has a different set of economic challenges and different social attitudes. The competitive challenge from across the world is even greater than it was. Yet the belief in the value of work, the importance of ideas and the refusal to accept decline that Mrs Thatcher stood for live on within the party she led. Today’s recall of Parliament shows the towering position her ideas command, and the inspiration she is to this generation. On the Tory benches, there is a buzz and a hum, a search for new solutions that is good for politics and, in particular, for the politics of the Right. Mrs Thatcher showed that a party succeeds when it wins the battle of ideas. It is a lesson we will not forget.

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