OF ALL the prime ministers of the 20th century, only two really managed to change the way we live. One was Clement Attlee, who ushered in the welfare state and nationalised much of British industry; the other was Margaret Thatcher, who effectively did the opposite.
Love or loathe her, Baroness Thatcher, as she became, brought about a revolution in British attitudes to wealth creation through her belief that Britain had to tackle the under-performance of industry, an almost perverse disapproval of success or making money, and its addiction to industrial action, which was bringing the country to its knees.
Thatcher arrived in the late Seventies with the country in the grip of the winter of discontent, rubbish piled up in the streets and the economy in ruins. It was a watershed moment for Britain that risked tumbling down the league table of performing nations unless someone performed major surgery.
The timing could not have been better for the first woman PM in British history and the first with a matronly style of management who was not prepared to be deterred from tidying up the mess that she inherited.
Inevitably, she divided opinion between her enemies, who thought her aggressive and heartless, and her supporters, who believed she was the best tonic the nation ever had.
Her critics felt she misunderstood industry and her commitment to services over manufacturing proved disastrous as Britain’s factories closed in alarming numbers and whole swathes of industry disappeared among the rubble. It is arguable that we are still counting the cost of relinquishing Britain’s grip on steel, shipbuilding and other, older industries.
Her closure of the coal mines and the open warfare that ran for years between Downing Street and the mining communities is remembered with bitterness among those still suffering from a lack of concern for those who fell victim and were never given adequate opportunities to recover.
Yet, in a decade easily divided between the early years of industrial decline and the later enterprise years, she engineered a new culture in which it was no longer taboo to build a business and get rich, to invest in the stock market and proudly admit to being ambitious.
Thatcherism became an economic ideology, the first time a PM had been honoured in that way. It provokes different emotions in those she leaves behind, but – for better or worse – she certainly made an impact.
Little Red must not be a flight of fancy
Sir Richard Branson blazed into Edinburgh yesterday with a typical stunt, not so much up his sleeve as up his kilt. He raised it for the cameras to reveal a somewhat lewd slogan that might befit a Carry On movie.
His more serious message was to announce Virgin Atlantic’s arrival in Scotland through the launch of its Little Red service, the first domestic flights Virgin has operated.
The airline’s decision to take on the former Bmi slots has been broadly welcomed by the Scottish Government, industry bodies and the tourism organisations who believe it will compensate for a drop in visitor numbers when Bmi was taken over.
There is, however, some nervousness that Virgin will make it pay. BA still has an advantage on flight frequency, luggage allowances, connections and lounge facilities. Branson may have bagged a lot of publicity yesterday but he has to make the numbers add up.