It was the experience of my father in business, and the inspiration of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, that drew me in to politics.
I should also acknowledge the best teacher anyone could wish for, Clive Thomas, who taught me American History at O level followed by Politics A level.
My father’s battles with the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU) in the seventies inspired in me a great sense of injustice. Born in Coventry my father, Maurice James, left his council school aged fourteen with few prospects. After a few false starts he got going in business with a single lorry delivering coal from the Black Country around the Birmingham area. After his stint in the army, which took him to India for over three years, he returned and built a haulage business very successfully which became publicly quoted.
By the early 1970s the business was heavily unionised and it was impossible to make a profit. The slightest disagreement brought everyone out on strike, sometimes the disputes had nothing to do with relations between management and workers at my father’s firm, but his business would still pay the price in terms.
Politicians of both parties had tried to curb union power but the trade union barons at the time were having none of it. The unions resisted all new technology. And higher and higher taxation was required in order to subsidise loss making heavy industry. The vast majority of these businesses were of course nationalised. British Leyland, British Steel, the telephones, the railways (including all the railway stations, you certainly could not operate a private business on a forecourt). The greater the subsidy, the higher the taxes; and by the time Margaret Thatcher came to power the top marginal rate of tax was a staggering ninety eight per cent.
This was the Herculean task that faced Margaret Thatcher when she won the momentous 1979 election and became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. But admire her as I did even then, I didn’t anticipate the scale of the change she would bring about. It was truly breathtaking and entirely unpredicted. Unpredicted because no one thought that Britain’s decline could be reversed.
Thatcher restored Britain’s place in the world by making us competitive again. Incentives were restored, business was encouraged, industries were de-nationalised and taxes were lowered. None of that would have been possible without the law reform that took place over several years that drew the Trade Unions back under the rule of law. Previously above the law they now had to operate within a legal framework that balanced their rights with the rights of employers, non unionised workers and the public.
Margaret Thatcher’s achievements went well beyond the shores of Britain. But the influence she brought to bear on the end of the Cold War would never have been possible without the turnaround she first secured in Britain. Others were involved of course. She was fortunate in the services of Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, Lord Young, and the architects of her trade union law reform. My view is that none of it could have happened without her leadership, but that like all good leaders she did need the talents of those around her.
I was seventeen years old when Mrs Thatcher became the first female leader of a major western political party. The fact that she said what she was going to do, got on, did it and changed the world was a great inspiration. I started with work experience at Conservative Central Office, then worked as a researcher to Sir Anthony Durant MP, before finally getting elected to parliament as MP for Stourbridge in 2010, after an intervening career in business that lasted nearly twenty years.
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