MARGARET Thatcher did not believe in consensus.

She made no bones about that. Criticism, antagonism, even contempt, seemed to invigorate those fixed, sparking eyes. She was the last authentic class warrior in Westminster politics, and she gloried in the combat.

Mrs Thatcher treated dissent as affirmation. Accusations of divisiveness were taken as proof: she was right; they – a multitude – were wrong. There was her Britain – conterminous, despite all denials, with a mythologised England – and there was the rest. One way or another, she turned a great many people into “the enemy within”. By the end, there were a lot of us about.

Never enough, however. Mrs Thatcher won her elections in 1979, 1983 and 1987 fair and square. If the ability to succeed at the polls is the definition of political stature, she stood as high as any Westminster figure in the 20th century. If the ability to generate abhorrence counts as an achievement, meanwhile, she was an over-achiever. But she was, undeniably, a winner.

For all that, the map of Britain traced by her popularity was an odd, distended affair, the true blue leeching away with each minute of latitude, south to north. On May 4, 1979, she stood on the steps of Downing Street and paraphrased the so-called Prayer of St Francis (“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony … Where there is despair, may we bring hope”). For most of Britain north of Watford her policies meant the opposite, in every particular.

This was nowhere more true than in Scotland. Few of the eulogies below the Border will mention the fact she single-handedly destroyed a Conservative tradition once embedded in Scottish life. The myth persists she was rejected because of her Englishness – her predecessors encountered no such prejudice – but in truth she was inimical, by conviction. She was detested for her actions, not her accent.

Mrs Thatcher was a lucky prime minister. She had the luck to see the Social Democratic Party born in the spring of 1981, stripping support from Labour when her approval ratings were dire. She had the luck – and it was often touch and go – to win the Falklands war, despite 1000 deaths and the gratuitous sinking of the Belgrano, as a prelude to the 1983 election. She had the luck that bequeathed a 90% North Sea output tax when her “productivity miracle” required four million unemployed, and when dole money was due.

She had more vastly luck than her predecessor, Ted Heath, with the press. Mrs Thatcher gave extraordinary, still-unexplained, latitude to the ambitions of Rupert Murdoch, and helped him at every turn, generally by bending then-existing media ownership rules. Favours were returned. We have lived with the lurid consequences, the capsizing of democratic pretence, ever since.

Despite her elocution class manner, this millionaire’s wife was the first tabloid prime minister. Jingoism; judicious racism (“The British character has done so much for democracy, for law, that if there is any fear it might be swamped, people are going to react …”); a visceral dislike of unions; a contempt for the public sector; a veneration of wealth and a hatred of tax; a suspicion of culture and “permissiveness”; latterly the use of “Europe” as a cipher for xenophobia … redtop culture fitted “Maggie” – never to her face – like a glove puppet.

Long before her death, Mrs Thatcher’s admirers were insisting on her greatness. They said she had saved Britain, indeed the western world, with her stubbornness and self-belief. Her enemies, meanwhile, called her a blind ideologue, and heartless with it. Both descriptions were wide of the mark.

Ideologues must think: Margaret Thatcher never bothered. Her tendency to translate the ideas of Friedrich von Hayek and the monetarist “Chicago school” into the language of the Grantham grocer’s shop did no service to either. Despite the ravages of her “economic experiment” – manufacturing output cut by one-third, botched privatisations, mass unemployment – she never did balance the books. Contrary to legend, government spending increased in real terms during the 1980s. Income tax cuts, of special benefit to the better off, were not free.

Nor did Mrs Thatcher do much – for how could she? – to bring down the Soviet “evil empire”. The bankruptcy of the USSR was self-inflicted, hastened by a futile arms race with the United States. In welcoming Cruise missiles to Greenham Common, and in purchasing the Trident missile system at extraordinary cost, Mrs Thatcher sealed Britain’s subservience to America. Whether her peculiarly intense relationship with Ronald Reagan counted as self-reliant patriotism – the bizarre invasion of Grenada aside – is a matter of partisan opinion.

Nevertheless, her ideology, like her geo-political activities, never approached consistency. Mrs Thatcher’s politics was a visceral thing, formed of a belief in a natural order, in the assumption Britain needed restoration, and in a nostalgia for some never-defined golden age. She was, in the purest sense, a reactionary politician. Hence her failure, for long decades, to take apartheid seriously, and her willingness to dismiss Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. Hence her revulsion at the very idea of trade unionism. Hence her embrace of the casino economy.

She had the streak of vanity usual in prime ministers, one enlarged by three election victories. Her statements, in power and after, suggest Mrs Thatcher believed herself indispensable. She enjoyed the unlikely idea of the Iron Lady, a suburban Britannia, the politician who was “not for turning”. She felt entitled to invoke Churchill, as though “Winston” had been a blood relation. In truth, her sense of destiny was near-Gaullist. And she had no sense of humour: laboriously, her speechwriters had to explain the Python dead parrot joke.

You can judge her, as is customary, by her legacy. The Thatcher years altered Britain for good, if not for better. Part of her bequest was an unthinking complicity, as an article of foreign policy, in America’s adventures. Tony Blair could have followed the example of Labour’s Harold Wilson during the Vietnam years, and spared Britain the Iraq debacle. Instead, Blair, like John Major, did as “Maggie” would have done, and went to war under American command.

Mrs Thatcher’s heirs had neither the wish nor the desire, meanwhile, to unpick her privatisation programme, that mass transfer of wealth from the public realm to the private. In the case of the utilities, state assets were exchanged, often at absurd prices, for monopoly capitalism. The myth of choice and a “share-owning democracy” did not outlast her premiership. But the idea the private sector will always perform more efficiently than the public became tenacious thanks to Mrs Thatcher.

Modern Britain is in large part her creation. Banking gone bust? Those excesses can be traced to the deregulation of the financial sector, the “Big Bang”, of 1986 and after. The tabloid press run amok? The privileges allowed to Murdoch count as exhibit A. All hope of an independent foreign policy gone? Maggie thought she had a duty, no less, to Ronnie, leader of a foreign country.

Housing bubbles and housing crises? Mrs Thatcher believed council schemes bred socialist councils. She sold the houses cheap – but raised £20 billion in the process – and turned property into a British obsession, and generated a froth of asset bubbles. Her economic reforms were parasitic, at every turn, upon the public’s state-secured estate. She put nothing in its place.

Her allies and patrons said she “put Britain back on its feet”. The evidence is thin. Those of Mrs Thatcher’s class prospered greatly from her tax cuts in the 1980s. Those in and around the City of London luxuriated in easy money. But wealth, however “created”, did not often trickle down, as theory demanded. The poor paid.

Inequalities, narrowing before her arrival, became a fact of British life in the Thatcher years. There were riots, a glut of heroin, and hopelessness. Her insistence on “management’s right to manage” served only to demonstrate, meanwhile, British management left something to be desired. To her slim credit is the fact she opposed rail privatisation. A despiser of trains, she sensed a debacle in the making.

History takes a shorthand note. It says: miners, then a poll tax, then (for a northern minority) a prime minister who reneged on the promise of devolution. So official memory and folk memory diverge. Two dozen profitable pits were shut simply to make a point, and kill a trade union. The British state was put at risk just to ease Scottish Tory complaints over ratings valuations, and establish all must “pay their way”. And Scotland was lost, in irredeemable constitutional terms. Mrs Thatcher did not apologise.

Commentary upon her funeral will lose that detail. Mrs Thatcher broke Britain. Thanks to her madcap deregulation, the banks went bust in 2008. Thanks to her taste for confrontation – with her own people, to labour the point – trust in the British state was dissevered. Thanks to her indulgence towards redtop papers, media corruption flowed. Her poll tax was class war in bold caps. After Mrs Thatcher, no prime minister enjoyed trust for long. And gross domestic product did not improve.

Hindsight will call her comical figure. She destroyed every enemy, and made herself ridiculous. At the end, her ego vast, she called her overthrow “betrayal”. But the truth was mundane: she was less popular than her party; Labour would certainly have won a general election; her rhetoric had become risible. In the last days of 1990, the bombast of 1979 had become unseemly, even among the erstwhile Tory acolytes. The moment had passed.

By the end, there were a lot of us about. The unreconciled, the persecuted, the insulted, the poor, or those who simply took it for granted – strange to remember – the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was mad. That’s a legacy. The fact that eccentricity became institutionalised was telling, too. The idea that impersonating Mrs Thatcher was a sane and inevitable course, as an electoral ploy, Labour or Tory, is another of history’s shorthand notes.

She picked a fight. Those she conscripted will speak well of her, no doubt. Those who stood on the other side, on painted lines at pitheads, in the reeking Wapping mist, when the City casino echoed like a fair, when the Greenham women were being carted off, when pensioners were intimidated to bolster community charge propaganda, provide other memories. Truth persists.

Mrs Thatcher’s every victory was a defeat, as it happens. She altered Britain merely to end Britain. In demanding respect, she never dared hope for love. Her economic miracles left us where we are now: a second-rate power, with Third World debts, and a banking class stripping £14bn in self-awarded bonuses from the commonweal.

Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, no-one even thinks that a crime. In a grubby, disturbed, discontented country, her spirit prevails.

The dirt needs no tramping.