Reading over the many tributes to the late former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, I recall my own year living in London, 1983-84, during the peak of the bloody miners’ strike and the social turmoil that Thatcher’s brand of conservatism unleashed.
Today, Lady Thatcher is remembered and eulogized as the “Iron Lady” who took on the unions, tackled Britain’s spiraling public expenditures and rampant inflation, and forged a union with Ronald Reagan that toppled the Soviet Union and brought about the end of the Cold War. But when I was living in London, as a graduate student at the London School of Economics, Thatcher was a deeply divisive figure, loathed by many for ripping apart the nation’s longstanding social fabric and turning the U.K. into something many people did not want it to become; the word that I recall being most often used is “heartless.”
Mine was an admittedly small orbit – fellow students living in central London, though they hailed from far and wide, including Scotland in the north, Bournemouth in the south, and the West Midlands in the center. There were also the lecturers and professors who became friends. And as far as I could tell, none of them particularly liked or admired what Thatcher was doing to Britain at the time. I can’t think of a single person I met who ever voted for her – or who admitted to, anyway. (I confess, I also never met a New Yorker who said he or she voted for Rudy Giuliani for mayor, though he won there twice).
When I lived there, rising unemployment had become a feature of Thatcher’s Britain. Violence between the police and strikers was another. Homelessness another. She was responsible for creating a Britain that was more unequal than the one she inherited, where politics became nastier and more corrosive, where the traditional safety net was shredded, and where the longstanding social compact between people and the government broke down. She was making Britain less “socialist” and European, and more “American” in the sense that a larger degree of inequality was tolerated. (Full disclosure: I come from a union household in Detroit, and have a strong distaste for union-bashing politicians who blame organized labor for all the problems in the modern economy).
Much of the early divisiveness of Thatcher’s first term was forgotten because of one singular event, Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, and the British military response that precipitated her political comeback and allowed her to ride a wave of “rally ‘round the flag” nationalism into the next general election.
She was also helped along by the fecklessness of the Labor opposition, starting with Michael Foot, a decent man who had the appearance of an unkempt college professor, and who was 70 when he ran against her but looked even older. Next came Neil Kinnock, who was tagged with the label of the perennial loser. ( Rupert Murdoch’s Thatcher-boosting Sun newspaper ran the infamous 1992 election day headline: “If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”) During my time in London, Thatcher and her allies were able to demonize the militant Miners’ union president Arthur Scargill as their real enemy, even as the unfortunate Kinnock was trying to drag Labor to the center-left.
The other area that I think stains the Thatcher legacy is South Africa. She refused to join nations like Canada and Australia and back tough Commonwealth sanctions against the racist minority apartheid regime, and she derided the African National Congress as a “terrorist organization.” Her spokesman famously dismissed anyone who thought Nelson Mandela and the ANC might one day rule South Africa as “living in cloud cuckoo land.”
The best piece I’ve read on Thatcher’s divisiveness was by a philosopher, A.C. Grayling writing an op-ed in the New York Times. I’m sure there are other balanced pieces out there that I missed, ones that capture Thatcher, the good, bad and the ugly.
When I read that Thatcher “set Britain on a new course” (the headline on the Times obit), I wonder less whether that course was the right one, but whether her abrasive style and ideological hectoring were more detrimental to her country, and maybe ours.
Surely some corrective was needed to tame inflation and tackle Britain’s many economic ills, including the overarching role of the state. But, could a less combative figure have accomplished the same changes, without the bitterness and divisions that followed the Thatcher years?
I look at the many accolades being heaped on Lady Thatcher today by some of the most obstructionist and ideologically rigid right wingers. And I wonder; would politics be so poisoned today – on both sides of the pond – were it not for the forces that the Iron Lady unleashed?
I wonder – and I welcome your comments.