Margaret Thatcher: she still divides us

Anthony WellsHead of European Political and Social Research
April 10, 2013, 8:46 AM GMT+0

Our first poll looking back at the legacy of Margaret Thatcher since her death this week shows the majority of people think she was a great or good Prime Minister (indeed, 28% see her as the greatest of Britain's post war Prime Ministers), but that a significant minority regard her as having been terrible. Almost a quarter of a century after she fell from power she continues to divide opinion - very few people saw her as average, they were either for or against.

Overall 25% said Thatcher was a great Prime Minister, 27% good, compared to 23% who said she was terrible and 7% poor. Just 10% said average. Her ratings were not vastly different across the social spectrum, both men and women rated her highly, and while younger people born after she left office are less likely to have an opinion, those that did were still more positive than negative. While opinion gradually becomes less positive as you go northwards, even in the North 49% have a positive opinion of Thatcher, 35% negative. Only in Scotland is the balance of opinion negative.

Public see her as Iron Lady

People's views of Thatcher herself are very much in line with the image of the Iron Lady. Asked what qualities she had 72% said she stuck to what she believed in, 66% thought she was strong, 59% decisive, 42% good in a crisis, 41% a natural leader. The lowest figure was being in touch with the concerns of ordinary people, something which only 11% of people now think that Thatcher was. It is perhaps ironic that the public regard Thatcher positively, yet rate her so poorly on the measure that present day politicians worry so much about. On the other hand Thatcher's contemporary supporters always said the woman behind the media image had a natural knack for understanding the public.

Mixed views on legacy

Her legacy for Britain is seen as more mixed. 47% think her period as Prime Minister was good for Britain, 36% bad for Britain. On balance people think her premiership left Britain economically better off, and 60% think she left the country more respected in world. 51% think she left behind a country where there were more opportunities for women. By 36% to 31% people also think she left Britain a freer country. However 49% think she also left a less equal society behind her.

Asked about what they see as her successes and failures, Thatcher's greatest achievement is the least political - 44% picked being the country's first female Prime Minister. This was followed by winning the Falklands War (33%) and defeating the Miners' strike and taming the Trade Unions (27%).

Her biggest failure was seen as the one that finally brought her down - 44% named the poll tax. This was followed by overseeing the decline of mining and manufacturing (37%) and the privatisation of utilities like British Telecom and British Gas (31%). The right to buy was picked by a significant number of people on both lists - 21% thought the introducion of the right to buy and the growth in home ownership was one of Thatcher's greatest achievements, 22% thought selling off council housing through the right to buy was one of her worst failures.

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