In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher’s death provides a conundrum for your humble blogger: How does one write cogently about the life and career of a colossus?

I am not sure that I will do the subject of Thatcher’s life and times the justice it deserves. But I’ll try nevertheless. Thatcher deserves encomiums for her achievements, and whatever my poor powers of eloquence, I’ll try to provide one.

Back when I was much younger, I watched a television show about clever foreign commercials. I think that it may have been hosted by Dick Clark and Ed McMahon. I only remember one commercial from the show. It may not have been the cleverest in Clark’s and McMahon’s eyes, but it certainly was in mine:

Of course, I’ve always been fascinated with politics and current events, which doubtless was responsible for the fact that the commercial made an impact on me. But in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death, the commercial comes to mind once again. It comes to mind not just because it was—and is—funny, but also because of the incomplete nature of its message.

The joke in the commercial is straightforward: Margaret Thatcher was such a polarizing figure that when she was little, even her own mother blanched at the idea of Thatcher possessing political power. But of course, the commercial fails to point out that it takes two sides to contribute to political polarization. Certainly, Margaret Thatcher did not evoke neutral feelings on the part of observers. People either loved or hated her. She possessed a fierce intelligence which she often turned on lesser people, she was absolutely convinced that she was in the right when it came to policy and political philosophy, and she had no patience whatsoever for those who would have continued to allow Britain to remain “the sick man of Europe,” which Britain undoubtedly was before Thatcher came to power. Either this approach was one’s cup of tea, or it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t, the hatred that would result would last a lifetime.

But when one looks at the condition Britain was in prior to Thatcher taking up residence at 10 Downing Street, one sees rather quickly—or should, anyway—that Thatcher was entirely right not to have had any patience for those who were willing to continue the policies that brought Britain to its knees. I disagree with almost everything Andrew Sullivan says, does or writes these days, but Sullivan has decided to take a break from trying to convince is that Barack Obama is a secret conservative in order to show us why Thatcher—a genuine conservative if ever there was one—was so desperately needed in Britain:

… Yes: the British left would prefer to keep everyone poorer if it meant preventing a few getting richer. And the massively powerful trade union movement worked every day to ensure that mediocrity was protected, individual achievement erased, and that all decisions were made collectively, i.e. with their veto. And so – to take the archetypal example – Britain’s coal-workers fought to make sure they could work unprofitable mines for years of literally lung-destroying existence and to pass it on to their sons for yet another generation of black lung. This “right to work” was actually paid for by anyone able to make a living in a country where socialism had effectively choked off all viable avenues for prosperity. And if you suggested that the coal industry needed to be shut down in large part or reshaped into something commercial, you were called, of course, a class warrior, a snob, a Tory fascist, etc. So hard-working Brits trying to make a middle class living were taxed dry to keep the life-spans of powerful mine-workers short.

To put it bluntly: The Britain I grew up in was insane. The government owned almost all major manufacturing, from coal to steel to automobiles. Owned. It employed almost every doctor and owned almost every hospital. Almost every university and elementary and high school was government-run. And in the 1970s, you could not help but realize as a young Brit, that you were living in a decaying museum – some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete.

As Sullivan points out, Thatcher decisively changed Britain for the better:

Thatcher’s economic liberalization came to culturally transform Britain. Women were empowered by new opportunities; immigrants, especially from South Asia, became engineers of growth; millions owned homes for the first time; the media broke free from union chains and fractured and multiplied in subversive and dynamic ways. Her very draconian posture provoked a punk radicalism in the popular culture that changed a generation. The seeds of today’s multicultural, global London – epitomized by that Olympic ceremony – were sown by Thatcher’s will-power.

Making these changes wasn’t easy. Thatcher had to break the power of government to control the most basic aspects of the lives of British people. She had to crush—yes, crush—the authority of unions, which repeatedly took Britain hostage by starting up crippling strikes … until Thatcher smashed them once and for all. She had to combat the nuclear freeze movement and convince the British people (and other people in the free world) that the best way to convince the Soviets that conflict and confrontation would get them nowhere was to show strength in the face of their provocations. She had to convince a country that was used to statist economic policies that the economic liberalization urged by the likes of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman was infinitely preferable. She had to stand up for Britain’s interests in the Falkland Islands against an authoritarian and militaristic Argentine junta. She had to remake Britain entirely. All of this made her look like a divisive and polarizing figure in the eyes of many Britons.

But that doesn’t disguise the fact that she succeeded in meeting her policy objectives. In spite of fearsome opposition, in spite of hateful rhetoric, in spite of an IRA attempt to bomb her into oblivion, in spite of Argentine intransigence which threatened her leadership, she succeeded where so many other British politicians had failed. Her singular intellectual gifts, her moral courage, her resolute and steadfast convictions and her sheer patriotism helped bring Britain back from the brink, and helped make her—along with Churchill—the greatest and most consequential British prime minister of the 20th century. And one of the greatest ever.

Obituaries about Thatcher’s life and career cannot help but capture the epic nature of her life and career. Her personality and courage shine through in the New York Times’s coverage, for example, even though the Times also airs the views of Thatcher’s critics. No surprise; the critics shrank before Thatcher while she was alive. They now shrink before her memory as well.

So many hated her so much and for so long that her death is a cause for celebration for a number of Thatcher’s enemies. I suppose that one could get angry and outraged about this, but why bother? Consider that when Thatcher-haters die, no one will much care. They failed to defeat Thatcher at the polls, after all. Thrice. The Lady herself put it best:

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.

Of course, it wasn’t Thatcher’s enemies on the left, but rather, her own Conservative colleagues who ultimately forced her from power. But even in the act of leaving, she stood taller than did her detractors. In the aftermath of her ouster, a no-confidence motion was put forth in the House of Commons. Its passage would have meant the dissolution of the government, and new elections. Thatcher might have had to personally surrender power, but she would not put up with the notion of letting the Tory majority in the House dissipate. Speaking out against the motion, she put on perhaps her greatest oratorical performance:

At the end, one can hear an MP provide the ultimate comment on Thatcher’s utter mastery of the House: “You can wipe the floor with these people!” Which of course is exactly what she did with her opponents for the vast majority of her time in politics, making Britain better off in the process.

The Iron Lady is no more, but her legacy remains. As she promised, she never turned. Her nation is, and will always be grateful.

Requiescat in pace.