The lady who changed the world

In order to gain your Bronze Arrow as a cub scout, one of the tasks which you had to complete was to make a phone call from a public telephone box. All of us who were due to complete the task were given Akela’s home phone number. You could not cheat and call from home as in those days the recipient would be able to hear the “pips” which sounded when the connection was made from a public phone box and which prompted the caller to insert his 2p coin into the slot. On the day assigned for the task I set off up Weelsby Road to the nearest box, a couple of hundred yards away. On my arrival I managed not to cut my hand on the broken glass. I braved the smell of urine inside. My coat then caught on some discarded chewing gum. I lifted the receiver, and was about to dial the number when I noticed that the receiver was not connected any longer to the rest of the phone.

So off I went to the next one, near the park. That too was out of order. Then I crossed the park to Welholme Avenue, where I knew there was another. There, the mechanism worked but the coin slot was jammed. Eventually I found a box that worked. Ironically, it was very near to the scout hut. I was duly awarded my badge.

And that, dear reader, was Britain in the 1970s, before Margaret Thatcher came to power. A country where the lights would often go off with – or without – warning. Where the television news most evenings carried a litany of stories about one strike or another. Where if you wanted a phone installed at home you had to apply in writing to the post office and wait your turn. It was as if the post war rationing mentality had never been overcome. So far as utility services were concerned, you accepted what was given to you, and didn’t complain. “Mustn’t grumble” was the most common, grudging reply to any inquiry as to how you were. For those not born until 1980 or after, watch the re-runs of The Sweeney or early Minder on the TV. Or get the box set of Life on Mars. Read Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club.

The job of the UK government in those days was to “manage Britain’s inevitable decline”. We joined the EU out of desperation, in the hope that something, anything, might rescue us from the industrial malaise into which we had fallen. For years it had been taken for granted that, in addition to running the NHS the Government ought to run the phones, water, electricity, gas, coal mines, car factories, the national airline and railway. All of them cost the taxpayer a fortune to maintain, all provided a poor service and all were in truth run by the trades unions, who would close the industry down if they disliked anything the government appointed management proposed.

Abroad, the world was divided between the Communist states and the West. The Communist states believed in the continued propagation of communism and were perfectly capable of using force (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Afghanistan, Poland) to impose their will on their subject peoples. It seemed to me, from 1979 until 1991 that the barbarians were at the gates and that only the continued election of Conservative governments, headed by Margaret Thatcher, would prevent the end of civilisation. That might seem alarmist in today’s world where the possibility of armed conflict in this country seems impossibly remote, but back then it was a very real prospect.

Margaret Thatcher made the difference. Others have written at length in the papers and on the internet about her achievements and her legacy. For me, she pulled this country back from the brink of economic, military and democratic annihilation. She was without doubt the greatest Prime Minister since Churchill, and would be a good candidate for the title of best peace-time Prime Minister ever.

The title to this post is not original; it was used by the Economist for this blog post: which is the best summary of her achievements that I have read thus far.


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