For the purposes of full disclosure, I write these words as someone who, back in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s, joined countless picket lines and demonstrations against Mrs Thatcher’s regime, shouting on top of his voice (and to the detriment of his vocal chords): “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out!”. Indeed, when I was putting this blog together, three years ago, I went so far as to write in the ‘About’ page: “My break from Britain occurred in 1987 on the night of Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory. It was too much to bear. Soon I started planning my escape.” And while my views on the Iron Lady have not changed one iota, I feel the need to express my sorrow for her passing; a sorrow that I have been feeling well before her death; indeed one that began to creep up on me a few short years after her ‘admirers’ in the Tory party sent her packing.
As the tributes fly in, following the announcement of Mrs Thatcher’s death, perhaps this small tribute from someone who opposed almost everything she stood for, and certainly her main economic, social and foreign policies, may be of some significance. Indeed, Mrs Thatcher was the sort of person that would appreciate a sworn enemy’s eulogy a lot more than the platitudes of the many sycophants that are piling up.
So, why is someone who kept screaming at ‘her’ “Out! Out! Out!” (when in government) is missing her after her final exit? The reason is simple and has to do with a combination of two attributes: First, she was the last British politician to have meant what she said. A ‘conviction politician’ as those rare birds were once called. Secondly, she had a sense of history that informed her actions. While I abhorred both her convictions and her historical take of the past, at least she had convictions and did base her thinking on an historical take that extended beyond the past… week of events. This combination is sorely missed in our current predicament when politicians are mere market research-driven simulations, and in which to have convictions is considered outdated, a sign of weakness, a relic of an antiquated past. With Mrs Thatcher, at least you could trust that she meant what she said. Oh how I miss that in a politician…
A time of death is not a time to offer a full critique of the life that just ended. It is a time to reflect generously on that life’s effect on all of us. I shall never forget the feeling of admiration for the way she addressed the House of Commons, of her formidable defence of her government and her philosophy (which was, in my estimation, that much more impressive given that both her government and her philosophy were indefensible). If I delve a little more (see below) on her contradictions, it is not out of an urge to diminish Mrs Thatcher; in fact, I believe deeply that we are all contradictory creatures and that the greater our ambition the greater the antinomies within us. And by golly, did Mrs Thatcher display great ambition and, thus, great contradictions!
She was the first woman Prime Minister but had little sympathy for the suffragettes (and the women’s movement in general) that broke the barriers to women’s progress, thus allowing her to rise up. She wanted to liberate Britons from the state but ended up granting Whitehall (Britain’s London-based functionaries) hitherto unheard of authoritarian powers. She sought to impose libertarian values, only to discover that she needed an autocratic state in order to do so (which explains nicely her fondness for, and defence of, General Pinochet). She preached judiciousness, on matters economic, and thrift, yet her government built the ‘British Miracle’ on the twin bubbles of real estate and the City created by spivs who worshipped her. She was keen to see the end of the old Etonian ruling circle but, unwittingly, created the conditions for the resurgence of that aristocratic clique (just take a look at the present cabinet). She championed a ‘share owners’ democracy’ but delivered a Britain in which ownership of businesses (and wealth) is more concentrated in the hands of a minority than at the time she became Prime Minister. She campaigned against totalitarianism in Moscow while insisting that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist who deserved to languish in gaol. Above all other contradictions, she argued passionately about a return to the Victorian moral life but gave rise to a regime in which it was impossible to imagine anything good being done for its own sake (as opposed to for profit).
Despite all these contradictions, the world was a better place when it allowed formidable personalities, like that of Mrs Thatcher, to rise to the top. It is highly questionable whether someone of Mrs Thatcher’s strong convictions and bravado could rise again to a position of genuine power. And this is, surely, a sad reflection on the world after Thatcher.
Lastly, on Europe, while it is true that Mrs Thatcher only turned against the European Union when the Labour Party turned pro-European, she was quite right on what monetary union meant in the absence of democratic checks and balances. Undoubtedly, her hostility to the Eurozone project had little to do with her commitment to democracy (given the way in which she diminished democracy at home, especially at the local government and regional level) and a great deal with having to cede her own prime ministerial power to Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. Whatever her motives, nonetheless, she was spot on when, in her final parliamentary speech as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, famously said about the Eurozone: “It’s all politics. Who controls interest rates is political. A single currency is about the politics of Europe.” Europe’s leaders and citizens can do a lot worse than to remember, and mark, these words.