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A transformational leader, unfortunately

April 10, 2013

LOOKING back, it now seems strange that during her first couple of years as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was widely viewed as something of an aberration.

In 1981, with unemployment soaring and civil unrest erupting in places such as Toxteth in Liverpool and Brixton in London, her opinion poll rating plunged to unprecedented lows. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume that a rendezvous with ignominy awaited her at the next general election.

Yet, in June 1983 she led the Conservative Party to a historic landslide that echoed the scale of the Labour Party’s 1945 triumph under Clement Attlee. A primary factor was the previous year’s Falklands war, in which a British task force thwarted Argentina’s military occupation of the South Atlantic island.

It was Thatcher’s Churchill moment — hardly comparable, by any stretch of the imagination, with the Second World War, but sufficient to spark a level of jingoism that helped to decisively delineate new political contours at the domestic level.

There were also unintended consequences — 10 Downing Street accepted a gift of flowers sent by the Cuban-backed Revolutionary Democratic Front of El Salvador, accompanied by a note that read: “You have succeeded where we failed. Since the dispatch of the task force to the Falkland Islands, 266 Argentine military advisers have been withdrawn from Central America. Thank you.”

Of course, the brutality of the military junta that Leopoldo Galtieri presided over had little to do with Britain’s armed excursion. Barack Obama has hailed Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”, choosing to ignore her admiration for the likes of Augusto Pinochet, not to mention her notorious designation of Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

The Chilean dictator was more than a vile autocrat, though: he also made his nation available as a preliminary testing ground for the neoliberal policies of the Milton Friedman school of economics.

The consequent triumph of blatantly unethical individualism over broad societal welfare fit right in with Thatcher’s ideological inclinations, and her undying adoration for Latin America’s most infamous caudillo rendered her incandescent with rage when Pinochet was incarcerated in a luxury villa by the Blair administration for a few months while British courts pondered whether he could be extradited to Spain to face charges relating to human rights violations.

She wasn’t always particularly consistent in discriminating between dictators, though. Her 1981 Christmas card list included greetings dispatched to “the Leader of the Great First of September Revolution” in Libya — a certain Muammar Qadhafi — as well as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Less than a decade later, she is believed to have helped persuade a wavering George Bush the elder to spearhead the first invasion of Iraq.

However, by the time that confrontation got under way, she was no longer in a position to extol its virtues, or to proclaim “Rejoice!” when the campaign was suspended. By late 1990, she had once again become an electoral liability, and the Tory grandees unceremoniously dispensed with her services.

In retrospect, in terms of preserving the legacy of Thatcherism, it was a clever move — even though that may not have been quite what her Conservative opponents intended. Had the Tories lost power under Thatcher amid widespread popular anger over the profoundly regressive poll tax — which had provoked riots in the heart of London — the incoming Labour administration would probably have been obliged to reverse at least some of her excesses.

But by the time what seemed like the perennial opposition eventually came to office under Tony Blair after seven years of John Major, it did so with the intent of perpetuating Thatcher’s legacy.

In her later years, Thatcher was known to unhesitatingly claim, at least in private, that her proudest achievement was the birth of New Labour. Reciprocally, both Blair and Gordon Brown had few qualms about acknowledging the continuity.

At the same time, it is not particularly surprising that her demise this week prompted spontaneous street parties in several parts of Britain.

Eruptions of joy at anyone’s death may seem a trifle distasteful, but for the most part those who took part in the celebrations were marking not the inevitable quietus of a dementia-stricken octogenarian but the passing of an inveterate class warrior who left behind in society deep fissures whose very existence she was famously loath to acknowledge.

Britain’s trade unions have much to answer for, but the state’s response to the 1984-85 miners’ strike remains a stark reminder of how Thatcher’s neoliberal ideals were perfectly compatible with an atrociously authoritarian streak.

Thatcher came into power in the wake of an economic disaster, but her purported cures surely rivalled the disease in terms of toxicity. The individualism mantra fitted right in with the “greed is good” Wall Street ethos of the 1980s, and it was easy for her to make common cause with fellow cold warrior Ronald Reagan — even though she was well aware that “the old dear” in the White House had “nothing between his ears”.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Thatcher did not hesitate to put her foot down during disagreements with the United States — as in the case of the Falklands and the US invasion of Grenada. Blair-the-heir showed no such spine in his dealings with George W. Bush.

Thatcher’s single-minded zeal in pursuit of her convictions — she seldom doubted that she was absolutely right — won the admiration even of her ideological adversaries. Tony Benn, for one, lamented the inability of Labour — still a nominally socialist outfit in the early 1980s — to reciprocate.

The economic trajectory she favoured — mass privatisation, the ascendancy of credit over manufacture — and its consequences — the atomisation of society and increasingly stark discrepancies of wealth — have since become the norm far beyond Britain.

Unlike her shuffling off the mortal coil, her legacy is not irreversible. In that there will ultimately be some cause for celebration.