The death of Margaret Thatcher – England’s first female Prime Minister and the first female chief executive of any European nation – has invoked a gallery of responses about both her political career and her personal attributes. That’s to be expected from the passing of any world leader. History will judge her time in office; contemporary observers and future historians will always have a personal opinion about her.
Thatcher came to power in 1979 as a member of Britain’s Conservative Party. At the time, the United Kingdom – and England, in particular – was mired in social and economic crises. Both unemployment and inflation hovered around 20%. Worker strikes, mainly among coal miners, had stretched the nation’s emotional and fiscal resources. Oil embargoes that had such a negative impact on the U.S. economy also inflicted heavy damage on England. Amidst the economic carnage, the Irish Republican Army had grown more militant in the 1970s; demanding with even greater ferocity that the U.K. relinquish control of Northern Ireland. Just like union worker strikes had increasingly turned into riots, IRA protests had metamorphosed more and more into bombings.
England had been in a seemingly perpetual downward spiral since the end of World War II. The British had successfully fought off the Nazis, but they paid a heavy financial and psychological toll. England reluctantly accepted rescue from the United States in the form of the Marshall Plan; an ambitious and mostly triumphant effort to help all of Western Europe recover from the global conflict. But, amidst the reconstruction, England became a nearly-total socialist welfare state. It didn’t help that the English empire was slowly being dismantled, another after-effect of the war. Its weakened state allowed for many of its imperial colonies to break free from the British Crown. First, India gained independence in 1947; followed by the U.K.’s various outposts in Africa.
By the 1970s taxes were high; labor unions had gained extraordinary amounts of power and most industries were government-owned, and the English government appeared utterly paralyzed and helpless. Fellow Europeans denounced England as “the dead man of Europe,” a label that angered its proud citizenry, but one that was rather appropriate given the conditions.
Into this mess stepped Margaret Thatcher.
It’s ironic that even Thatcher would rise to become Britain’s Prime Minster. In a 1973 television interview, she stated, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” More importantly, though, Thatcher was born into a humble family; the second of two daughters of a grocer who had his own political ambitions. Despite England’s current position as one of the staunchest bearers of democracy, it once existed pretty much under a caste system; a society where an elite few held the reins of government. It was rare – almost impossible – for someone outside of the bourgeois class to attain any position of power. Most of England’s national leaders had essentially been aristocrats. It’s a legacy of British royalty’s vice grip on English society. Even though the Magna Carta technically removed power from the British royal family, it wasn’t until enactment of the Reform Bill of 1832 that a formal Parliament (the House of Commons) was established. That elevated the voting powers of the Parliament above the king and traditional ruling families. But, not until the start of the 20th century did Parliament gain almost complete power. Regardless, it remained a tough climb from Britain’s working classes to a seat in the nation’s Parliament. And, when Thatcher won her first term, it shocked the staid patriarchal “boys’ club,” while pleasing the masses.
Thatcher introduced a tougher, more stringent agenda; tackling the heavy taxes and obstinate union bosses. I suppose – given the circumstances – she had no choice. She had to be loud and blunt; otherwise, the men in the Parliament chamber wouldn’t take her seriously.
Thatcher’s stubbornness and determination compelled her to privatize many of the nation’s industries, such as oil and electricity. She believed a capitalist free market was best for any society; the only true means to economic prosperity. She lowered taxes and almost completely extinguished the country’s long-entrenched welfare system, along with tackling workers’ unions, mainly the coal miners.
She also had no qualms about confronting the IRA. Even after she narrowly survived the 1984 “Brighton Bombing” that killed 5 people and injured 31 others, Thatcher remained undeterred. “That is the scale of the outrage in which we have all shared,” she announced the day after the assassination attempt, “and the fact that we are gathered here now – shocked, but composed and determined – is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”
One of the worst crises of Thatcher’s first term in office came in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands; a long-held British territory Argentina called Las Malvinas. The 74-day conflict resulted in more than 1,200 casualties; the vast majority of whom were Argentine military personnel. Even when Argentina realized it was no match for the U.K., Thatcher authorized the bombing of the ARA General Belgrano, an Argentine light cruiser, even though it was actually sailing away from the Falklands.
The term “Iron Lady” has become synonymous with Thatcher, but it’s one that was bestowed upon her even before she announced her candidacy for Prime Minister. In a 1976 speech, Thatcher declared that “the Russians are bent on world dominance,” prompting the “Iron Lady” comment from Soviet leadership. It was a moniker she actually adored. Others had more colorful names for her.
Thatcher developed a close political and personal relationship with Ronald Reagan, her ideological soul mate. Like Thatcher, Reagan originated from a working class background, but – just like Thatcher – seemed to loathe working people. He, too, believed fervently in a free market society and thought labor unions were a pox on economic stability. With Thatcher it was coal miners; with Reagan it was air traffic controllers. When they went on strike in 1981, Reagan fired 11,000 of those who refused his executive order to return to work. Reagan sided with Thatcher during the Falklands War, but refused to get involved. He also joined her in repeatedly and loudly announcing the death throes of the Soviet Union.
Reagan had run his campaigns on the typical conservative mantra of limited taxation and smaller government. But, whereas Thatcher actually lowered English taxes, Reagan ultimately increased them in the U.S. In analyzing their respective leaderships, I can only note Thatcher didn’t just delegate responsibilities to her cabinet members and then take naps; plus, she always seemed to remember what she had said and done. Thatcher had spent a lifetime in politics, while Reagan entered the game as his acting career fizzled. Personally, I have only slightly more respect for Thatcher than Reagan, but I didn’t like either of them.
I supposed Thatcher was simply a product of her time. The circumstances were dire when she first walked into 10 Downing Street. Her presence was a welcome respite from the dismal state in which England found itself. Sadly, more people fell into poverty during her three terms in office; a direct result of her anti-union stance and intense deregulation of industries. That’s something else she has in common with Reagan.
Like most hardcore fiscal conservatives, however, Thatcher never seemed to understand that workers’ rights are basically human rights. I think she felt that, since she rose to such prominence, everyone else could do the same. But, not everybody has the wherewithal to accomplish what she did; not everyone has the same ambitions; and not everyone is so fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to make such dramatic changes on society. Somebody has to work a cash register; somebody has to wait on tables; somebody has to dredge the coal mines. Not everyone can be president or prime minister, a doctor or a lawyer; it just can’t happen. Average workers form the spine of a nation, and they should be appreciated and respected.
I don’t know exactly how Margaret Thatcher’s legacy will be inscribed. As with any national figure, it will depend on the reviewer.
There is one other odd parallel between Thatcher and Reagan. In 1971, while still Secretary of Education, Thatcher became known as the “Milk Snatcher,” a name not nearly as familiar as “Iron Lady,” but one that’s more befitting of her capitalist agenda. During World War II, milk (among other staples) was subjected to extreme rationing in England, as it was just about everywhere else. Afterwards, the 1946 Free Milk Act ensured free milk to everyone under the age of 18. But, as the British government looked for ways to trim its budget in the tumultuous 1970s, Thatcher saw free milk subsidies as a drain on the economy and subsequently pushed through measures to stifle them. Edward Short, then education spokesman for the Labor Party said scrapping milk was “the meanest and most unworthy thing” he had seen in his then 20 years in office. Thatcher, of course, was unfazed.
Around the same time, Reagan – then beginning his second term as governor of California – toyed with the idea of having ketchup declared a vegetable, since it’s tomato-based. That, he claimed, would count towards the nutritional needs of the state’s schoolchildren. Fortunately, it never got past his desk. But, he pulled the same stunt a decade later as the nation’s newly-elected president and demanded that the U.S. Department of Agriculture do its part to stabilize the economy by devising new ways to trim its budget. Thankfully, nothing came of it. Reagan never became known as the “Vegetable Snatcher,” but these incidents display the arrogance of the fiscally conservative mindset.
Milk, bombings, distant islands – for better or worse, Margaret Thatcher made an impact on English society. Her story is still not complete.