LONDON – Two former prime ministers were buried this week. One was a gloriously battling heroine of freedom, Boadicea in pearls, who put the Great back into Great Britain and won the Cold War with a little assistance from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The other was the empress of evil, Cruella de Vil in a twinset, who smashed her country to bits. Then there is a third Margaret Thatcher, the real one masked by all the myths with which she has been embalmed since her death. This woman was a much more complex personality with a much more paradoxical legacy than either the eulogists or the haters can allow.
It is undeniable that she was a huge figure: the first and only woman to occupy Number 10, and the first person to win three elections in a row under universal suffrage. It is also unarguable that she was a transformative leader. She changed her country, her own party and their principal Labour opponents. The largest British prime minister on the global stage since Winston Churchill, she played a significant role in changing the world too.
Then we enter the land of legends. The most potent of those propagated in recent days is that she was the last “conviction politician,” a superwoman of self-will who has been followed by pathetic pygmies of compromise. This is very destabilizing for today’s leaders as they shiver in the shadow of this myth. If only, sigh Tories dissatisfied with their current management, David Cameron would display the steely resolve of Mrs T. If only, cry some Labour people, we roared our socialist convictions with the same zeal as she did hers.
There’s no argument but that she had a solid bedrock of beliefs. It is true, too, that she wasn’t much bothered whether or not she was loved, preferring to be respected and prepared to settle for being feared. By the end of her time in power, she was so utterly impervious — even Trafalgar Square ablaze could not persuade her to rethink the poll tax — that she brought about her downfall. But it is not true to say, as worshippers and detractors have alike suggested, that she never cared about public opinion. Someone who didn’t would not have won a hat-trick of elections. The early, signature policy, the sale of council houses to their tenants, was consciously designed to turn working-class voters into Tories. She repeatedly vetoed policy proposals that might hurt what she called “our people.” The memoirs of colleagues attest to her nerves before calling elections. Far from disdaining modern campaign tools, she pioneered their use in Britain. With the Saatchis, she introduced American-style political advertising. She was the first British leader to employ image consultants and did cosmetic surgery to herself — changing her clothes, lowering her voice — to be more voter-attractive.
Her radicalism was largely concealed from the electorate — and not fully formed within herself — before she came to power. She fought a cautious campaign in 1979, bargaining that national impatience with the trade unions and Labour’s failure to control them would be enough to get her into office.
Her first manifesto was fairly clear on direction, but light on specifics. She initially put industrial relations reform into the hands of the Tory wet, Jim Prior, who proceeded slowly. She ran from a battle with the miners in 1981 — so much for never U-turning — because she was not ready to take them on. The single riskiest decision was to send the task force to the south Atlantic to take the Falklands back from the Argentines. That was certainly high in peril. Had Argentine Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri’s air force been more proficient — had it managed to sink the aircraft carrier — it could have ended in a colossal humiliation for Britain. But for her, it was not so much a gamble as unavoidable. The alternative was resignation.
Only after her landslide victory of 1983 against a divided left did Thatcherism really take flight. The top rate of tax was slashed to 40 percent. The privatization of state industries was a world-leading revolution. But it did not really lead to the “share-owning democracy” that she aspired to create.
Most of the “Sids” quickly pocketed their profits and the bulk of the shares ended up in the hands of financial institutions. Something had to be done about the failing state industries, but it is arguable that there were better answers than turning them into virtual private monopolies supervised by anonymous regulators. It was also in her second term that she finally felt strong enough for the epic confrontation with the miners that shattered them and broke union power more generally.
The unions had effectively destroyed the premierships of two of her recent predecessors, Jim Callaghan and Ted Heath. Battle could not have been avoided, but did it have to be quite so brutal? Almost certainly yes when the adversary was Arthur Scargill and there was so much at stake on both sides. Could the consequences have been handled better? Absolutely yes. With or without Thatcher, globalization would have forced a painful shake-up of Britain’s traditional heavy industries. The very black mark on her record, even Norman Tebbit, one of her most loyal ministers, acknowledges this, was to neglect the communities wrecked by deindustrialization.
Whether it was ideological myopia or plain indifference, the casualties were left to rot on benefits, fostering the dependency culture to which she was supposed to be so opposed. For all her rhetoric about reforming the welfare state, the public sector consumed almost the same proportion of national wealth when she left power as when she came to it. That was a signal failure of her ambition to roll back the state or maybe an indication that there is a fairly settled ratio between public and private that not even a Thatcher can buck.
One area of the economy did begin an explosive growth during her reign: financial services. Some argue that her 1986 “Big Bang,” which deregulated the financial sector, set in motion the forces that eventually led to the Great Crash. In her defense, it should be said that she left office nearly 20 years before 2007. The more potent charge is that she was the progenitor of a culture, one New Labour was too intellectually intimidated to challenge, in which finance capital held the world in its thrall and profit was elevated above everything else.
This is one of the paradoxes of her legacy. The woman who preached the virtues of thrift, modesty and hard work learned at the knee of her devoutly Methodist father became the midwife to a Mammon cult of debt-sozzled avarice. Here’s another. The personification of upward mobility — born over a corner shop, died in a suite at the Ritz — presided over widening inequalities in both opportunity and outcomes.
She was a champion of liberty. Well, yes and no. When much of the rest of Europe was wobbling, the implacable Cold Warrior was on the right side in the confrontation with the Soviet Union, which she correctly saw as a fundamental struggle between freedom and tyranny. She was a heroine to liberated Eastern Europe. The pragmatic side of her was also able to spot Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a man that she “could do business with.”
She was on utterly the wrong side in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. She handed Hong Kong to the Chinese without a squeak.
She was no friend of plurality at home and become a worse enemy as she grew increasingly imperious. She responded to the opposition of Labour councils by abolishing the Greater London Council and sucking so much power to Whitehall that Britain became the most centralized state in Europe. “Is he one of us?” became the famous question about colleagues.
She would not listen to reason over the poll tax, as the more pragmatic, earlier Thatcher would have done. She fell out with ministers Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, once two of her most loyal lieutenants. By the end — a fact about which the Conservative Party has had collective amnesia these past few days — her own Cabinet told her she had to go.
She was the true-blue Tory who handbagged her own tribe’s future prospects while celebrating Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair as her proudest achievement.
With the unions humbled and his colleagues prepared to accept almost anything to get back to power, he was given space to adapt his party to her successes, profit from her failures and usher in an unprecedented 13 years of Labour rule.
That was a disaster for the Conservatives. So ultimately was the way in which she changed them from a generally centrist, pragmatic organization, focused above all else on power, to an outfit driven by often self-destructive ideological passions. She won her three elections, but in a fashion that made it hard for the Tories to win so long as Labour was competitive.
The Tories ceased to be a national party, largely shrinking into the affluent south that had benefited most from her reign. To this day, there are many major northern cities that do not have a single Tory councilor. Thanks, above all, to this stout defender of the union, Scotland now has just one Tory member of Parliament and will soon be voting on independence.
The Iron Lady? Yes, she was that sometimes. But more, she was the Ironic Lady.