Thatcher's spirit lives on, not least in self-reliant Hong Kong

Richard Harris says handbag economics may be her greatest legacy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 3:20am

Margaret Thatcher did not inspire me to go into politics - I decided that at a very young age - but she did allow me to believe that politicians could be a force for good, despite the pressures of politics.

She stated her beliefs to the electorate and moved ahead on a "back me or sack me" basis. She inherited a bankrupt country and transformed the economy. She was so successful that I was inspired to fly back to Britain from Hong Kong just for a weekend to walk the streets and knock on hundreds of doors for her.

She will not be mourned by the bully-boy unions that she defeated or by those who opposed her tax or benefit cuts. But the reality was that she put the Great back into Britain not that long after the International Monetary Fund had to bail out the pound.

She had many battles with Europe. French president Francois Mitterrand famously said she had the "eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe", part of the reason she was subsequently able to negotiate a huge rebate from the European Union for Britain.

Her strength and persistence finally won through the cold war and her personal relationship with the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, developed a real warmth for the future.

I stood before her at Conservative Party conferences for many years in a row, transfixed by her oratory. Yet she was not an orator - her speeches were team efforts worked on well into the early hours - but she was a phenomenal communicator. As young politicians, we were all deeply cynical but we were more than willing to lay that aside for her because she spoke basic sense.

You knew what she thought and she was never going to move the goalposts on you. You either followed her or you didn't, and millions came round to her. She appealed to a wide range of people.

But she finally went because Conservative backbenchers got worried that she would lose the election and they would lose their seats. As with all parliamentary politics, the opposition sit opposite you but the enemy sits behind you - waiting to strike.

Her bullheadedness debatably cost the British the chance to extend the lease on Hong Kong when in 1982 she said that the territory would not be handed over. That was not the way to negotiate with the Chinese. But she was able to change her views and the negotiations for Hong Kong in fact proceeded in a very detailed manner with a great deal of attention paid to the talks both by the British negotiators and herself.

It was in her character that she always had a soft spot for the ordinary people of Hong Kong, and she cared for their prosperity and happiness to be preserved after the British left - and so it has come to pass. It may be one of her smallest achievements - but for us it is pretty important.

The biggest thing she left with us was her handbag economics. You spend only what you put in; neither a borrower nor a lender be.

She injected being a housewife into her economics. She would not preside over a government of excessive debt and it was in balancing the books that she made many enemies among the entitlement community. Her view was that everyone should stand on their own two feet. That was Thatcherism and in that sense she admired Hong Kong.

Would we have more leaders like Thatcher today? Motivated, opinionated, hard-working, who come from the working class to the top. Britain really needed her in 1980.

She was more than a woman, she was even more than a prime minister - echoing Queen Elizabeth I's words, "I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and of a King of England too".

Richard Harris is a former Conservative Party candidate, 1996-97.