The Iron Lady has remained as divisive in death as she was in life. Her friends have sung her praises and her enemies have abused her. Plus ca change – just another symptom of the 80s revival which is apparently in full swing. A tangential point made by Jess Irvine was that Margaret Thatcher probably inspired more popular songs (in English at least) than any other modern political leader. Jess could not even find a spot on her list for my personal favourite “Stand down Margaret” – a fine piece of early 80s post punk reggae by the English Beat.
Most assessments agree that the world would have been a different place without the milk snatcher. An interesting perspective on the contribution of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appeared in the 2004 book “What might have been: Leading historians on twelve ’What Ifs’ of history” edited by Andrew Roberts. Alternative History in its varied forms is a fun game for the whole family; providing your family includes weapons obsessed war gamers, Lynryd Skynyrd fans, Sci Fi and Fantasy writers and Historians from all points on the amateur to professional spectrum. “What might have been” is a British production, generally from a Tory perspective, and the writers look at such unhistorical events as the invasion of the Spanish Armada, Guy Fawkes successful Gunpowder Plot, and King Charles’ victorious 1641 military campaign against the Parliamentary forces. That this book is serious in intent can be seen from the presence of footnotes in the text.
The point of departure for a less Thatcherite world is provided by the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton in October 1984. Six people were killed and more were injured. Mrs Thatcher was shaken but physically unhurt. “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once.” Simon Heffer then outlines the subsequent post Thatcher history of the Tory Party and the UK through the 1980s and early 1990s. An opinion poll was taken of Conservative voters about their hypothetical post Thatcher leadership preferences earlier in 1984. Norman Tebbitt was their preferred candidate ahead of Michael Heseltine. The Deputy PM in 1984 was William Whitelaw, but he was ineligible to become PM because he was a Peer.
Norman Tebbitt was seriously injured in the bomb blast and his wife was even more badly injured. He unexpectedly left Parliament at the next election in 1987, at least partly so he could spend more time caring for his wife. Any more seriously lethal bomb which killed Margaret Thatcher would also have killed Norman Tebbitt in all likelihood, along with unknown other potential candidates for PM. William Whitelaw was uninjured by the blast as he was staying with friends just out of Brighton. Michael Heseltine was at a NATO conference in Rome. Heffer thinks it would have been difficult to find a plausible Thatcherite candidate in the immediate aftermath of the bombing with Tebbitt either dead or seriously incapacitated. The claims of Thatcher loyalists Cecil Parkinson, Nigel Lawson, Leon Brittan, Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe are considered and rejected for a variety of reasons going to character and experience.
Michael Heseltine is elected, perhaps grudgingly by some, as leader of the post Thatcher Conservative Party about 18 months into a second term of Government. What happens next during the Heseltine Prime Ministership is crafted together by Heffer from his actions in various ministries, his speeches and particularly from his 1987 manifesto “Where there’s a will”. A consideration of this material enables Heffer to outline the possible successes and failures of a Heseltine administration, and to compare them with Margaret Thatcher’s actual achievements.
Heseltine was less of a free market acolyte than Margaret Thatcher and thought that some planning initiatives of both Heath and Wilson may have been worth another try. He was also a more committed European and would probably have pushed ahead into the ERM more quickly thus bringing into the open more quickly the pro / anti Europe split in the Conservative party.
Michael Heseltine was less ideologically opposed to the USSR and would have been less confrontational in his foreign policy dealings with Moscow. His greater openness to Europe was because he saw a more cohesive Europe as a stronger bulwark against the USSR. This less oppositional stance may well have delayed the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This historical timeline would thus have seen slower economic growth in the UK by virtue of greater planning controls and higher inflation and interest rates as a result of the push toward the ERM, which in turn contributed to a more disunited Tory Party. There were unlikely to have been any great foreign policy successes such as the fall of Eastern Europe and so the Heseltine government would have had little to show in the way of successes when it went to the polls in 1991.
Neil Kinnock only narrowly lost to John Major in 1991 but would probably have won against a poorly performed Heseltine government. In the view of the pro Thatcher Simon Heffer the unreconstructed Labor Party government of Neil Kinnock would have reaped the whirlwind of the institutional failures of the Heseltine government, the failures of European integration and its own inertia in the face of the economic changes of the 80s and 90s and fallen after a single term, setting the stage for a Thatcher like Tory PM in 1996. This very much leaves open the question of the arrival of one of Margaret Thatcher’s most significant heirs: Tony Blair and the New Labour project.
Simon Heffer’s prognostications about the post 1990 future of the UK may be open to question but the internal logic of his discussion about the alternative Heseltine 1980’s / old Labour early 90s shows the usefulness of the alternative history genre in highlighting both the past and the present. Margaret Thatcher presided over a number of significant changes, for better or worse, that may not have been pursued under a different leader.