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‘Iron Lady? Rust in peace’

April 15, 2013


OVER a week after her death, Margaret Thatcher continues to divide Britain much as she did during her 12 years in power. Against a backdrop of praise in Parliament, and hundreds of newspaper columns and editorials, she is also being vilified by large sections of society.

Perhaps the best indicator of her divisive legacy is the popularity of the old song ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead’ from the old musical The Wizard of Oz. People are downloading the ditty at a rate that has put it among the Top Ten. Many see this as deeply disrespectful to a towering figure, widely accepted as being Britain’s most influential politician since Winston Churchill.

When news of her death first broke, every newspaper rushed out special supplements full of articles and photos depicting her life and times. The Iron Lady – the title given her by a Soviet journalist, and one that stuck – was admired and respected on the right for the way she transformed Britain. On the left, she continues to be reviled for her dismantling of unions and her destructive policies towards industry.

Another reaction to the news of her death were spontaneous parties to celebrate the occasion. As with Bhutto in Pakistan, the mere mention of her name still ignites furious arguments. A heroine to the well-off who flourished due to her policies, she is a hate figure to miners and factory workers who lost their jobs in her terms of office.

There is a debate on now over whether her liberalisation of the financial sector led to the current recession. It is certainly true that when she deregulated the city, she unleashed a tremendous amount of pent-up energy and greed. London’s financial district rapidly became a global centre for deals, trades and mergers. Millions were quickly made, and multinational banks from around the world set up shop here.

The downside to this feeding frenzy was a disregard for the normal caution that used to be the British banker’s hallmark. Hugo Young, in an obituary written before his death, described the hardness that came into British society due to Thatcher’s encouragement of individualism. He saw this selfish streak as being now embedded at the centre of British life, over 20 years after she was forced out of office by a rebellion launched by her Tory colleagues.

Ken Livingstone, the left-wing ex-mayor of London, writes in the Guardian:

“Thatcher’s destruction of industry, combined with financial deregulation and the ‘big bang’, began the decline of saving and accumulation of private- and private-sector debt that led directly to the banking crisis of 2008. The idea that bankers would allocate resources for all our benefit was always a big lie. Now the overwhelming majority are paying the price through the bailout of bank shareholders.”

In Margaret Thatcher’s long political career, two things stand out more than her other policies: one was to take on the miners when they went on strike in 1984, and the other was the decision to send in the Royal Navy to neutralise the Argentine threat to take over the Falkland Islands. By confronting the National Union of Miners when they resisted the job losses that would accompany modernising Britain’s subsidised coal mines, and went on strike, Thatcher responded with a firmness bordering on brutality.

Thousands of policemen were deployed to arrest striking miners who tried to prevent workers from outside from entering the mineshafts. Many miners were injured as mounted policemen charged their ranks. Thatcher had earlier ordered for coal to be stockpiled to minimise the impact of the strike, and for some powerhouses to be converted to oil. In 1985, when the strike finally ended, the entire industry had been devastated. Today, it is virtually moribund.

In the Falkland war, Thatcher resisted the advice of her own cabinet colleagues, as well as counsel from Washington. Despite the dangers inherent in fighting a distant war, Thatcher prevailed, and her stock rose among a cheering British public that had witnessed the steady decline of their nation after the Second World War.

After her death, many of her ex-colleagues have spoken about her dogged determination to finish the task she set her mind to. With her grasp of the ways of the bureaucracy, she pushed and prodded until she got her way. Famously, she once remarked: “I’m the only man in my cabinet.”

Even those who opposed her policies at the time acknowledge her contribution in reviving the economy and putting Britain back among the ranks of significant players on the world stage. In this, she was helped by her friendship with Ronald Reagan, the US president in the 1980’s. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Thatcher encouraged the senior Bush to launch the first Gulf war.

In some ways, Thatcher was admirable in her total disregard for other people’s opinion of her. In an era when politicians resort to focus groups and opinion polls, and avoid unpopular decisions, Thatcher did what she thought was right, often dragging her cabinet behind her, kicking and screaming.

Her crackdown on IRA separatists made her deeply unpopular in Ireland. When some IRA prisoners went on hunger strike, she is reported to have callously said they should be allowed to starve themselves to death if they wanted to. One epitaph for the dead prime minister summed up these feelings in a graffito that appeared on a Belfast wall: “Iron Lady? Rust in peace.”

Thatcher’s rejection of the African National Council that was fighting apartheid in South Africa, and her dismissal of Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist” made her a hated figure around the world. In addition, her friendship with Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, raised questions about her democratic credentials. One brief letter in the Guardian expressed this loathing for Thatcher: “A friend of Pinochet. An enemy of Mandela. Enough said.”