The most iconic peace-time Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, has passed away at the age of 87. It is hard to think of a more divisive political figure in modern British history. If you searched Twitter trends on the day of her passing, you’d find tweets that respectfully commemorate her life and work, whilst others write words that celebrate and mock her death- in my opinion- in an atrocious manner. After all, Martin Luther King Jr. has often been coined with the phrase “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” (for who really said it, take a look at this fellow blogger ‘Rawlin’).
Margaret Thatcher divides opinion, and understandably so. I was born in 1984, and so am a child of the Thatcher years, too young to remember many of the controversies of her rule- not too young to have been unaffected, and smart enough to realise that I am in no position to celebrate her death as many ignorant young people have. But as a historian, I find her time in office fascinating! The paradox is that whilst she was stubbornly conservative, she led the most radical government in recent history. Prime Minister of eleven years, the first female to hold that position, she guided the UK into a global world and oversaw many changes. Recent reports have revealed that, despite opposition, she held strong on her commitment to defending the Falklands from Argentinian invasion, barely sleeping throughout the war. Her stubborn commitment to privatisation, ‘right to buy’ and the breaking of union power, along with her tussles with Europe and the Northern Ireland conflict made it an eventful eleven years in power. One historian, Dominic Sandbrook, says that “…she promised to restore law and order, yet she presided over the worst urban riots Britain had ever seen. She talked of bringing back Victorian values, yet her decade in office saw divorce, abortion, illegitimacy and drug-taking reach unprecedented heights. She extolled thrift, hated profligacy and even paid for her own Downing Street ironing board, yet she presided over a gigantic credit boom and unleashed the power of casino capitalism. And although she talked of rolling back the frontiers of the state, the stark fact is that, in real terms, public spending rose in all but two of her years in office (1)”.
Having watched the news in the past few days, I was struck by just how violent and chaotic the poll tax riots were. I was six years old when they happened, blissfully unaware of how a Prime Minister and a government could make such deeply unpopular decisions. The scenes make what happened in the London riots of 2011 seem tame in comparison, and remind us that democracy has not always been so timid here in the UK.
One aspect I am particularly interested in was how our “special relationship” with the United States finds its modern origins in the partnership between the late Ronald Reagan and the Baroness. Having taught both the Cold War and American presidential history at A-Level, I’ve encountered Thatcher’s involvement in this relationship indirectly, but her importance is strikingly clear. The fact that the term ‘Thatcherism’ has global connotations for analysts and politicians alike speaks volumes of her impact. She was driven by such ideology, and often- perhaps too often- her refusal to compromise over such ideological beliefs was the cause of such hatred amongst many. The BBC define Thatcherism as the “belief in free markets and a small state… rather than planning and regulating business and people’s lives, government’s job is to get out of the way”. In this sense, the special relationship between Reagan and Thatcher becomes a little clearer, as ‘Reaganomics’ opted for a similar approach (this in turn has prompted a thought to compare the difference in political ideology with the closeness of the “special relationship”, but that’s for another time!).
Some of her quotes sum up who she was as a politician perfectly. This was a women who, when turned down for a job in 1948, the personnel department described her as “…headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated”. Known as the self-titled lady who was ‘not for turning’, she once said, “I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say”. She stressed the importance of capital when stating that “nobody would remember the Good Samaritan if he had only good intentions. He had money as well”. Perhaps most controversially, she stated in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
During this week, I’ve also read an interesting piece that compares Thatcher’s reign with today’s political problems. For instance, Thatcher stood firm against Argentina and the IRA. Thatcher had much firmer control on immigration. Thatcher made sure that our country controlled our own destiny, rather than Brussels. Thatcher didn’t run up huge debts by spending money the country didn’t have or get our credit rating reduced.
For those who believe in Thatcherism and uphold her time in office as a high point in British history, this week is a sad time filled with some happy memories. For families torn apart by her determination to do what’s best for the country before what’s best for individuals, although the memories of her policies may bring anger and hatred, I only hope there is respect for a woman who gave it her all, and who was above all, human- who made mistakes, who held opinions, who loved, laughed, suffered and struggled- a daughter, a wife, a mother. She was no dictator, she was no Hitler or Stalin, and in her death, there should be respect even where there is disagreement, whether you loved her or loathed her. To return to the words quoted by Dr. King that apply to all walks of life: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.