So, I'm really not sure what to write about the late Margaret Thatcher. I'm certainly not a fan; during my first trip to the UK, in which my family and I went on a bus tour, I heard an awful lot about the harms of Thatcherism, and, in addition to reading a fair amount of UK journalism and commentary on her by writers like John Mortimer, I immersed myself in Hugo Young's The Iron Lady (1989), a critical biography, which I found to be compelling and fair.
So when I saw that Young's final take, written two weeks before his own death in 2003, was published today, I was interested. Young gives Thatcher due credit for her achievements, but is harsh about her legacy:
Thatcher left a dark legacy that, like her successes, has still not disappeared behind the historical horizon. Three aspects of it never completely leave my head.Now, in retrospect, with the EU in shaky condition, and the Conservatives in power again (albeit as part of a coalition) these last two prongs are less knockout punches than Young might have thought them at the time he was writing. They're defensible, mind you; the Conservative Party did struggle with a reputation as the "nasty party" until Cameron's 2010 election, and, in 2013, is still depicted as such; even the Telegraph (sometimes known as the "Torygraph") is lamenting "sinking" membership, which "now stands at between 130,000 and 170,000, down from around 250,000 when Mr Cameron became leader, and three million in the post-war period. MPs [Peter Osborne] spoke to [for a February 6, 2013 article]... believe they may have lost 10 per cent or so of their remaining members this week alone."
The first is what changed in the temper of Britain and the British. What happened at the hands of this woman's indifference to sentiment and good sense in the early 1980s brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs. It led to riots that nobody needed. More insidiously, it fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money – and this, too, is still with us.
Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn't care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.
Second, it's now easier to see the scale of the setback she inflicted on Britain's idea of its own future. Nations need to know the big picture of where they belong and, coinciding with the Thatcher appearance at the top, clarity had apparently broken through the clouds of historic ambivalence.
Heath took us into Europe, and a referendum in spring 1975 confirmed national approval for the move. ....
But on the subject of Europe, Thatcher became a contradictory figure. She led Britain further into Europe, while talking us further out. Endeavouring to persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection must take a high place in any catalogue of anti-statesmanship. This, too, we still live with.
One also can't forget what happened to the agency that made Thatcher world‑famous: the Conservative party, of which she seemed such an improbable leader. Without it, she would have been nothing. It chose her in a fit of desperation, hats and all – though it quite liked the hats. It got over a deep, instinctive hostility to women at the top of anything, and put her there. Yet her long-term effect seems to have been to destroy it. The party she led three times to electoral triumph became unelectable for a generation.
As to Europe, the jury is still out; Britain's distance from the Euro may protect it against contagion, but its own economy under Tory austerity policies reminiscent of Thatcherism has left the UK "tottering on the brink of a triple-dip recession (although, in fairness, not a particularly deep one.)" Even the IMF, hardly a Keynesian think tank, has warned the Tory government of the dangers of continued austerity, and one of the three major credit agencies has downgraded the UK's credit, while another, Fitch has put the UK economy on negative watch, the first step to another credit rating downgrade." (The third, S & P, has, like Fitch, not downgraded but has kept the economy on "negative watch.")
The third one, though, seems to me the fairest knock on Thatcher, who famously said "society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done." If I were to criticize any one strain in her thought it would be that, in my opinion, she under-estimated the importance of the common good, reacting to her dislike of state paternalism with an abstract clarity the cutting edge of which fell on real people all too often.
Thatcher's misjudgments regarding the IRA, which her hardline tactics is thought to have revived, the ANC and South African apartheid government (she dismissed the former as "a typical terrorist organisation" and opposed sanctions on the latter) and other provocative acts and speeches did neither her nor Great Britain credit. And let's not forget her betrayal as Prime Minister of her early, progressive record on GLBT rights.
And yet. Young makes a point in her favor that I think is very true:
I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile. She needed followers, as long as they went in her frequently unpopular directions. This is a political style, an aesthetic even, that has disappeared from view. The machinery of modern political management – polls, consulting, focus groups – is deployed mainly to discover what will make a party and politician better liked, or worse, disliked. Though the Thatcher years could also be called the Saatchi years, reaching a new level of presentational sophistication in the annals of British politics, they weren't about getting the leader liked. Respected, viewed with awe, a conviction politician, but if liking came into it, that was an accident.It's possible that Thatcher's medicine was necessary for Britain--Young himself stated that "Britain was battered out of the somnolent conservatism, across a wide front of economic policies and priorities, that had held back progress and, arguably, prosperity. This is what we mean by the Thatcher revolution, imposing on Britain, for better or for worse, some of the liberalisation that the major continental economies know, 20 years later, they still need," and wrote that "I think on balance, it was for the better, and so, plainly did Thatcher's chief successor, Tony Blair." I don't agree, but then I wasn't a Briton in those years. It's entirely possible that in noting the bitterness of the medicine, I am mistaking what was needful for the poison it seemed to be from a distance.
This is a style whose absence is much missed.
And, credit where due, she could rock a Christopher Fry reference:
May she rest in peace.