The reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death, on 8 April at the age of 87, has been predictably enormous. Internationally she has largely been lauded, certainly in Central and Eastern Europe where she is viewed as sharing, with Ronald Reagan, much of the credit for ending the Cold War, and where her economic policies of deregulation, free trade, small government, privatisation and low taxes have served as models for the democracies that re-emerged here in the closing years of the twentieth century.
Naturally, she has been praised in the UK too, sometimes to the point of hagiography, but she has also, to the puzzlement of many in other nations, been the subject of unusually bitter criticism. In the House of Commons, only two days after her death during the archaically titled debate “to consider the matter of tributes to Baroness Thatcher,” the three main party leaders tried to walk a careful line that acknowledged her achievements while not alienating the vast swathes of the population for whom the name ‘Thatcher’ remains one to be spat out through gritted teeth. Other MPs were less circumspect. Glenda Jackson noted that Thatcherism “had wrought … the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage upon this country, upon my constituency and upon my constituents,” while David Winnick spoke of her “indifference to and, at times, brutal contempt for, those who had lost their jobs.”
Outside parliament, the voices have been even less guarded. There have been protests and parties; more are expected during her funeral itself. Themed party packs have been offered by fast-moving impresarios (surely Lady Thatcher would have approved of their entrepreneurship, if not their product). The elaborate arrangements for the funeral, a state funeral in all but one or two formalities, have been questioned—filmmaker Ken Loach suggested that in commemoration of Lady Thatcher’s devotion to market economics, the ceremony should be put out to competitive tender and awarded to the cheapest bidder. A Facebook campaign has sent the song from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’, to one of the top positions of the national music chart.
But the reactions have not been only visceral. Her achievements and impact have also been relentlessly analysed and vigorously disputed. For every claim for the success of her economic policies is a counter-claim that her accomplishments were built on North Sea oil revenues and one-off privatisation receipts, which were, in any case, squandered rather than invested for the future (the contrast between the UK and Norway in this respect is stark). For every voice praising her longevity as a prime minister, there is another to point to the divisions among the opposition throughout much of her time in power, and the bounce that the 1982 Falklands War gave to the Conservative Party in the 1983 general election. For every triumphant declaration that she “saved the country,” as David Cameron, for one, asserted, is a trenchant criticism that she legitimised greed and fostered inequality, ‘saving’ only some while condemning others to marginalisation and poverty.
I was 13 when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, and 24 when she left Downing Street for the last time in 1990. Her premiership formed the background to my school and university years. Her power suits, that mammoth blonde hairdo, her pearls and infamous handbags were a constant presence on the television. Her voice was a soundtrack to the 1980s. Never, so far as I recall gentle, but always strident, forceful, bossy, scolding, like a Nurse Ratched dealing contemptuously with the sick man of Europe.
My memory is no doubt flawed, or selective, but the period of Lady Thatcher’s premiership, much more than that of any other prime minister I can remember, is branded with big, contentious issues and events. And much more than any other prime minister, these issues and events seem to have been associated with Margaret Thatcher personally. The imposition of the poll tax, the riots in Brixton and other inner city areas, unemployment peaking at almost 12%, the violence in Northern Ireland and the IRA bomb in Brighton that came close to ending her life, the protests over the hosting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, the miners’ strike—a brutal industrial dispute which split and destroyed communities and whose bitter legacy is such that almost thirty years later, miners assembled in London to protest on the day of her funeral—and, of course the Falklands War (the campaign to send a song to the top of the UK music chart might have been raised above the level of amusing puerility had the organisers chosen Elvis Costello’s haunting and reflective, ‘Shipbuilding’, instead of ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’). The whole period seems, in retrospect, to be characterised by conflict, with few traces of cooperation. Was this a sign of the times? Or was it a measure of a domineering prime minister, ready to throw to the dogs those discontented ministers from whom she demanded unwavering loyalty? The lady who is now celebrated as being “not for turning”, as if single-minded determination, regardless of the cost, coupled with a refusal to admit mistakes should be regarded as a virtue, rather than a weakness.
And so it is a little surprising to me that some in other nations are bemused that Lady Thatcher’s death has been met in the UK with something other than lavish praise and dignified respect. It is hard to condone those who, echoing the 1980s rallying cry of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out,” have chanted “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead, dead, dead” on the streets of London. No doubt the unthinking and the opportunistic were among them. But it is also hard not to recognise the catharsis that the death of this most divisive of politicians has brought to some, and to realise that this protest was, in part, a reaction to the current government’s introduction of new welfare policies that are seen to be very much in the spirit of Thatcherism. A side effect of Lady Thatcher’s position as almost certainly the most important British politician since 1945 is that she is the yardstick against which all succeeding prime ministers and their policies, particularly those of the Conservative Party, have been judged.
Her reputation abroad is, of course, built in large part on her foreign policy. Her determined stance in the Cold War clearly paid dividends. But even in foreign policy, her reputation is disputed. While standing up for freedom in the eastern part of Europe, she was also ready to continue business with the apartheid regime in South Africa as the EC and the Commonwealth imposed sanctions. She was fiercely against the re-unification of Germany, privately advocating the continued presence of Soviet troops there to keep the Germans down. She maintained a controversial friendship with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. And the fractious nature of her relationship with Europe—the immediate cause of her eventual downfall—is legendary (and another curse she has bequeathed to the modern Conservative Party).
Margaret Thatcher’s legacy will remain controversial in the UK for as long as it is discussed. Certainly she failed to fulfil the promise delivered as she stood on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” And in death, she has polarised the UK just as she did in life.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.