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Death of Maggie - Recognition wouldn't have been here without her!
Graham Robb, founder of Recognition PR met her numerous times, he recalls her impact on his life and the North East economy.
I am sad today by the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death, she was a great Prime Minister who changed the North East; it was painful but ultimately for the best.
I was in my last year at school when Britain’s first woman Prime Minister was elected. I was following a traditional path into British Steel which was taxpayer owned, loss making and over manned. I rebelled against my parents and ended up on a BTEC course in media at Longland’s College in Middlesbrough – one of only six people on the course. As a student I was as anti-establishment as most, joining the student union and wearing my ‘I won’t die for Thatcher!’ CND badge.
The change in me came about when I got my first job as a freelance presenter on commercial radio. I was self employed and had to pay my tax bill in one lump at the end of the year. The starting rate of tax was 33% and the top rate was 60%. It was a shocking instruction about the most important fact of political life; high spending can only be paid for with high taxation. In the days of Michael Foot’s Labour Party, only Margaret Thatcher was serious about getting spending under control. Then came the Falklands War and it seemed to me only Margaret Thatcher was willing to defend Britain’s interests. I was a convert.
A few years later I met her for the first time, and my life changed. I wrote a cheeky letter to 10 Downing Street asking her to be interviewed on my radio programme. There were fewer media outlets compared to today but nevertheless I was surprised when she said yes. I had a twenty minute interview scheduled but when she came into the room she poured a cup of tea and had a long chat with me first. Our conversation was almost an hour. In that chat she convinced me to apply to the Conservative candidates list, on the grounds that relatively few people from the North East stood for local seats. Seven years later I was chairman of the North East Candidates Association and fighting Peter Mandelson to represent Hartlepool, unsurprisingly he won! As for the radio interview; I listened back to it recently and the Prime Minister was much more concerned about unemployment than history recalls. She had established some imaginative schemes to help get unemployed people into jobs and the very effective Enterprise Allowance Scheme that set the North East on the path to become a more entrepreneurial economy.
The record we’ll hear about from her detractors will ignore some of the significant successes that transformed our economy from one dependent of three big industries of coal, steel and shipbuilding, to one that is multi-faceted and dynamic and is the lead UK export region.
More people own their homes in the North today as a result of a culture of ownership that started with council house sales but also included the ending of mortgage rationing and the six month queue for housing finance. By 1984 road system had linked the major towns south of the Tees with the completion of the A66. Exciting new places to work and play had emerged, places like the Metro Centre and Teesside Park. Huge tracts of derelict land were transformed by the two Urban Development Corporations; resulting the thriving Newcastle Quayside we love today and places like the Hartlepool Marina and the Teesdale office park in Thornaby. Incidentally, more people work in the offices at Teesdale today than worked in the factories that went bust in the 1970s and 1980s.
Margaret Thatcher’s assertive foreign policy contributed to the tidal wave of inward investment that hit the North East from the mid-1980s onwards. Nissan, Sanyo, Caterpillar, Orange Telecom, Samsung, to name only a few international companies that come here. The Americans and the Japanese loved her, and given that the UK was part of the single European market she had fought for, they fell over themselves to invest here and delighted in having a world leader with a towering reputation open their factory.
Love her or hate her everyone knew what Margaret Thatcher stood for. She was singularly devoid of weasel words and spin; she called us ‘moaning minnies’ when reporters focused on bad news instead on new investment. She reminded churchmen that the Good Samaritan would have been useless if he hadn’t had any money; she reminded lobby groups there was no such thing as ‘Government money’ it all came from taxpayers and ultimately from successful businesses, she said: “pennies from heaven have to be earned here on earth!”
One March the Conservatives met in Newcastle after the Bishop of Durham had given the Prime Minister a rough ride, she told us not to worry “it’s spring time you are bound to hear the occasional cuckoo!”
Comparing today to the time I left school, the steel works survived and is actively recruiting apprentices again. Industrial unrest in private industry is rare and income tax starts at only 20%. Margaret Thatcher was a world leader who defined her time, won her arguments and transformed our lives. I’m glad she succeeded and will look back with affection at the times I met her.
Pic, my interview in April 1985 and the recording.