The death of the former prime minister this week has reignited the debate about her legacy for manufacturing and commerce here in the West Midlands, writes Graeme Brown.
As the UK’s traditional manufacturing heartland, the West Midlands was affected more than most by the industrial struggles of the 1980s – and yet Margaret Thatcher remains a popular figure among many business leaders today.
Indeed, the word “Thatcherism” is thought to have been coined here in Birmingham.
The emotive term associated with low inflation, small state and free markets, was said to have been coined by Professor Stuart Hall of the University of Birmingham in 1979.
Prof Hall, founder of the New Left Review, foresaw Thatcherism as one of the most significant and radical political projects of the 20th century – and one that was likely to leave a lasting impact.
Mrs Thatcher’s legacy still irks some industrialists, who believe high interest rates, VAT rises and loss of tax incentives in the 1980s made life harder in an already hostile era for manufacturing.
The sector did shrink during Mrs Thatcher’s tenure from 17.6 per cent of GDP to 15.2 per cent between 1979 and 1990. But what is less generally known is that the decline in the decades before and after her office was even greater.
However, Mrs Thatcher’s encouragement of entrepreneurs was, and still is, respected by many others across the region.
Among those is Martyn Hale, chairman of Bromsgrove science equipment-maker HME Technology, who accompanied Mrs Thatcher on a visit to India in 1983.
He said: “Exporting to India was very hard going, but after Mrs Thatcher’s visit the outlook changed. Even the Foreign Office and our embassies changed from being anti-business to helping us win orders.
“I led a mission to India as a result of which Airbus won a huge planes contract with the help of British finance by Barclays Bank.
“I think my firm won something like £1 million of orders from India over the next eight to 10 years. We were also the first country to take an engineering trade mission to Iran following the revolution. The fact the British were there doing business was down to Mrs Thatcher.”
He added: “Her period in office will be viewed by history as being as big as the Industrial Revolution – at the time we were considered poor quality, terribly late deliverers and an industrial pariah.
“She was not perfect, there were some mistakes made, but she was a great leader.”
Mrs Thatcher’s business legacy is, of course, dominated by her role in privatising many of the UK’s largest industries. Elsewhere, she has been credited with turning the country into a financial powerhouse – although often at the expense of unions and wage equality.
She embraced monetarism and moulded the methods by which the Bank of England still works, targeting inflation by interest rate manipulation.
But her policies were not universally popular among businesspeople, who felt her tax regimes were often prohibitive.
Steve Brittan, president of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group, said: “The most important industry in the West Midlands was car production. British Leyland and its sister company Austin Rover were partly owned by the government, and had needed a large investment to save the company in the 1970s.
“It is easy to see how government policy was not of benefit to manufacturing. It could be considered her policies increased unemployment, but lack of investment was also contributing to production problems. So many people who remember the Thatcher era in the West Midlands would feel that her economic policies did not stimulate industrial growth.
“Some also regarded it as a time when those policies suffocated business in areas where manufacturing was the main employer.
“But the main Thatcher legacy here will be for curbing the power of the trade unions as well as being the Prime Minister who always put Britain first. And of course she will always be remembered for her resolute stance over the Falklands.”
Mrs Thatcher never tried the scale of cuts that now face the UK coalition government – spending as a percentage of GDP rose in her first years of power before falling in the late 1980s.
Her term actually ended with more of the workforce employed in the public sector than now – 23.1 per cent as opposed to around 20 per cent now. However, poverty and inequality increased, according to Institute for Fiscal Studies figures.
Labour peer Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, head of the WMG manufacturing arm of the University of Warwick, was an industrial adviser to Mrs Thatcher for much of her period in office.
He said: “For the whole world she became an icon. I can’t think of anyone else in recent history who was so single-minded in her determination to turn Britain round. Today we are enjoying the fruits of what she put in place.
“She gave power to young people and the working class. But she was not really a politician in the classic sense.
"She had a mission to put Britain back into the limelight, and she succeeded. She ensured that Britain escaped the image of being strike ridden and suffering a lack of competitiveness.
“She came to WMG three times. She had an inquiring mind, was keen to listen to what I had to say, but was always challenging and thought provoking. Being a scientist by background, she was forensic in her analysis. She was a great leader.”
Chairman of Staffordshire digger-maker JCB Sir Anthony Bamford – a regular donor to the Conservative party – said: “Margaret Thatcher will be remembered for many things, not least for being Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.
"Above all else, she had the courage of her convictions, she led from the front and ensured Britain enjoyed the respect it deserves overseas.”
Flags at JCB’s factories were lowered to half-mast as a mark of respect.
Jason Wouhra, new chairman of the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands, said: “She was a great example of a strong leader, and broke new ground for female leaders in particular.
"Britain was privileged to have a prime minister who understood the importance of entrepreneurs, aspiration and business. She will be sorely missed.”
• Lady Thatcher was “a radical” and “a great woman”, Birmingham peer Lord Fowler told the House of Lords, as Parliament commemorated the former Prime Minister.
But Walsall MP David Winnick accused her of causing “immense pain and suffering to ordinary people” as he condemned the policies of the Thatcher government in the House of Commons.
Mr Winnick (Lab Walsall North) said it would be hypocritical not to express his honest opinion, as MPs and members of the Lords took part in separate debates following Lady Thatcher’s death.
He said: “I recognise that by becoming the first female Prime Minister obviously she made history, and that cannot be disputed for one moment.
“But what was done under her premiership, the 11 and a half years in which she was at 10 Downing Street, the way in which those policies were carried out, in my view and indeed the view of these benches at that time, were highly damaging, caused immense pain and suffering to ordinary people.”
He told MPs: “In the Black Country and in the West Midlands we were devastated by the two major recessions which occurred during the 1980s.”
It was sometimes argued that the changes to the economy which occurred under Lady Thatcher’s government were inevitable and had to take place even if they led to unemployment, he said.
But he added: “Even if one accepts that some of it was inevitable, what was so unfortunate was what I can only describe as the indifference and at times also a brutal contempt for those who lost their jobs
“Instead of understanding what it meant to the people involved, it almost seemed like the Government of the day blamed the people who were made redundant, as if it was their fault.”
Norman Fowler, the former MP for Sutton Coldfield, paid tribute to Lady Thatcher in the House of Lords, which held its own debate – and insisted she treated her Ministers with respect, as long as they were willing to stand up to her.
He served as Transport Secretary, Social Services Secretary and Employment Secretary in Lady Thatcher’s government’s.
The Thatcher era had been “momentous years”, he said, marked in part by tragedies such as the Brighton bomb, which killed five people in 1984 when the IRA attempted to assassinate Lady Thatcher during the Conservative Party Conference.
Lord Fowler said: “There were undoubted crises like the Falklands. It’s the only time I ever remember her going round the whole of the cabinet table and asking each minister one by one whether they were in favour of the task force going, and virtually everyone agreed, with one exception.”
But he said he had agreed “metaphorically with fingers crossed” – because he had carried out his own National Service during the Suez Crisis, and remembered how the United Kingdom’s attempt to take military action then had ended in humiliation.
“But the success of the Falklands was a tribute to a totally professional armed forces but also a tribute to the consistency, determination and the courage of Margaret Thatcher herself.
“Above all I think serving with Margaret Thatcher was always exciting. It was sometimes also great fun.”
He added: “Some days she trampled all over her ministers and it’s true that if you were prepared to be hand-bagged, she would oblige.”
Lord Fowler said: “She was a radical and she was above all a leader... in my view these days should be a recognition and a celebration of a great woman.”