Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday at the age of 87, was the first woman to lead a Western democracy. She saved Britain from economic ruin, breaking the power of the country’s hard-left trade unions in the process, helped to bring down the Soviet Union and win the Cold War, and won a hot war with Argentina after it invaded the Falkland Islands. Not a bad life’s work for the daughter of a greengrocer.
Thatcher was a truly transformative figure. But when you set out to fundamentally change a country you’re inevitably going to find yourself unpopular in some quarters — ask Barack Obama. Much of the coverage of her passing has focused on Thatcher being a “divisive figure”; “love her or hate her” has been a constant refrain on the BBC coverage. (The BBC, while showing due deference yesterday, was very firmly in the “hate” camp while she was in power.)
There’s plenty for the left to be mad about. After all, Thatcher defeated the Labour party so completely that in order to make itself electable again it had to change its name (to “New Labour” under Tony Blair), abandon several of its core policies, and adopt many of hers. Although after defeating communism, the humbling of divided and discredited Labour probably didn’t feel like that big of an achievement.
Like her great friend and ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher had a gift for presenting conservative arguments in plain language that resonated with ordinary people, and for pointing out the absurdities of left-wing ideas in equally plain terms. Although, one of the quotes most commonly attributed to her — “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money” — is actually a paraphrasing taken from a 1976 television interview.
It should be said that those in Britain who are openly celebrating Thatcher’s death are in a minority.
Serious and principled socialists who disagreed vehemently with her policies have nonetheless paid tribute to her character, resolve, and political skill. Politicians on the center-left have been even more generous — but then, they owe more to Thatcher than they’re prepared to acknowledge: she did the dirty work of smashing the trade unions that were dragging down the Labour party, paving the way for Blair to make it electable again. (Thatcher was aware of the irony.)
Those directing the most vitriol against her (I’m not going to repeat or link any of it, it’s not hard to find if you feel like a roll in the mud) are on the lunatic fringes of the British left. They know that thanks to Margaret Thatcher and the irrevocable changes she wrought on British politics and society, they will never again wield influence within their own party — never mind get their hands on the levers of government.
But conservatives upset by the sheer viciousness of some on the left should take a page from Thatcher’s own book, and view the attacks on her as the ultimate compliment. They don’t hate her because of what she believed — they hate her because she beat them. As Thatcher herself once said:
I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.
Much of the anger at Thatcher is rooted in the damage inflicted on working-class communities by her policies of shutting down inefficient and costly industries, notably the coal industry. It’s true that the unemployment that resulted from those policies devastated former mining towns, and the Conservatives arguably failed to do enough to help stricken communities recover. But the damage was worse than it need have been because the process of reform had been put off for so long.
In the 1970s, Britain was known as “the sick man of Europe.” The country was crippled by debt and high inflation, and the coal industry, auto industry, and other state-owned behemoths had been running at massive losses for years. Leaders of both parties, unwilling or unable to confront the unions who were opposed to reforms, had resigned themselves to “managing the decline” of their once great nation (both the Labour party and the unions had also been heavily infiltrated by members of the communist party with direct links to Moscow).
Those who are today recalling with misty eyes the fate of the miners either forget, or choose to ignore, the role the miners had played in bringing Britain to its knees.
I can remember as a child in the early 1970s spending evenings reading by candlelight because there had been yet another power cut. At the time, all I knew was that I couldn’t watch Dr. Who. Years later I learned that the power cuts were the result of industrial action by coal miners, who were demanding pay increases beyond the ambition of workers in other industries who lacked the ability to blackmail their country by turning out the lights.
The miners helped to bring down Edward Heath’s Tory government in 1974. But Labour discovered that it couldn’t control the unions, either. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was fatally weakened by a campaign of industrial action that culminated in the 1978-1979 “winter of discontent,” during which uncollected garbage was piled high on Britain’s streets, and the dead went unburied.
When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she set about modernizing the British economy and creating an “ownership society.” In addition to closing unproductive industries, she privatized public services, with members of the public encouraged to buy shares in the new gas, electricity, and telecom companies. She allowed council house tenants to buy their homes, and opened the City of London to foreign investment, paving the way for it to become the financial powerhouse it is today.
In the whirlwind of change that followed over the next decade, there were inevitably losers as well as winners. Not everyone, after all, was equipped to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities on offer, especially those who had relied on the state for a living all their lives. Even Thatcher’s admirers would admit that she wasn’t bold enough in reforming some public services, notably education and the National Health Service.
But there were many more winners than losers. So Thatcher was re-elected twice, and the Tories even managed a fourth consecutive general election victory after she’d gone.
If the consequences of her policies were controversial at home, Thatcher’s successes overseas were indisputable. Just three years after coming to power she was faced with a test that no one could have foreseen: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Against the advice of some in her own party — and initially against the wishes of some in Ronald Reagan’s administration, who hoped for a diplomatic resolution — she resolved to retake the islands, and sent a task force almost 8,000 miles to do the job.
I like to think that Thatcher was well enough to have heard the news a few weeks ago, when the Falklands Islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain British subjects.
But while the Falklands War was a spectacular triumph for Thatcher, in the grand scheme it takes second billing to the part she played in winning the Cold War. Thatcher was ridiculed by the left — both at home and in mainland Europe — for her uncompromising attitude towards the Soviet Union, and for the alliance she formed against it with Ronald Reagan, who was viewed by European socialists as a reckless “cowboy.” She defied both Labour — which was committed to a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament — and the communist sympathizers in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to allow the U.S. to station cruise missiles on British soil.
Ultimately, Thatcher was brought down by divisions within her own party over Britain’s relationship with Europe, another issue on which she was ultimately proved right.
She was a keen supporter of the European Union as a free trade organization – indeed, she favored the creation of a transatlantic free trade area encompassing Europe and the U.S. — but she was strongly opposed to moves, led by France and Germany, to create a federal European superstate.
She also presciently opposed the European single currency, warning in 1990:
The single currency will be fatal to the poorer countries because it will devastate their inefficient economies.
The bailouts, bank runs, and riots that we’ve witnessed in the last few years, as one southern European country after another has been forced to the brink of economic collapse, have thoroughly vindicated her skepticism. At the time, she was viewed as extreme and misguided by Britain’s political and business establishments.
When Thatcher left 10 Downing Street for the last time as prime minister in November 1990, she said:
We’re very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here 11 and a half years ago.
That was an understatement. As her successor David Cameron said in paying tribute to her yesterday:
She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country.
He might have added the she also helped to save Eastern Europe, and perhaps the entire continent.
Margaret Thatcher wasn’t right about everything, but she was right about most things, and everything she did was founded on a love of her country and her deeply held belief in the decency and potential of its people. Just as importantly, she showed that the British left was utterly and dangerously wrong about every major issue of her time; that is why so many of them hate her.