The Legacy of the Late ‘Iron Lady,’ Margaret Thatcher

The first female prime minister of Britain, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, died on Monday, April 8. Her death has naturally sparked a discussion concerning her legacy, both nationally and internationally.
Whenever a head of government dies, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate their time in office.
What would make a more objective and sober examination possible over Mrs. Thatcher’s political life is that she left the office 23 years ago. The disadvantage is she was a very divisive political figure, and therefore, those who opposed her with a vengeance continue to bear a grudge. Nevertheless, Margaret Hilda Thatcher needs to be evaluated in at least three differing categories to provide a serious examination of her legacy: economic, political and international.
Thatcher, a politician of convictions
Firstly, in terms of the economy, the Thatcher legacy is a mixed one. When she won the first of her three election victories in 1979, the UK economy was in dire straits. Inflation was running at more than 10 percent, the previous few months were marred by strikes and referred to as the “winter of discontent.” The electorate was unwilling to keep the Labour Party in government as it had clearly failed to keep unemployment down -- having reached more than a million -- and unable to keep the economy afloat without help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Thatcher embraced and became the first free marketeer. She disliked and disagreed with the consensual Keynesian economic policies that had been adopted by the two dominant parties. Approving of Hayek and favoring Friedman’s “monetarist” ideas of controlling the money supply with high interest rates to reduce inflation, she quickly began to implement stringent budget cuts as well as raising interest rates from 12 percent when she took office to 17 percent in less than a year.
Both were considered to be essential to rein in rampant inflation, though the result was a loss of growth due to heavy losses in the manufacturing industry and exports, leading to a deep recession with huge increases in unemployment. Inflation hit 18 percent after her first year in government but due to reduced wage demands, slowed down. As unemployment broke the psychological 3 million mark in 1982, many in her own party began to question the newly adopted monetarist path.
Thatcher, however, was a politician of convictions. She seemed to revel in adversity and never feared a challenge. She refused to back down in her economic philosophy and kept pursuing her agenda of scaling down the role of the state and reducing taxes for the wealthy. Value added tax (VAT) nearly doubled from 8 percent to 15 percent, ensuring regressive taxation through indirect taxes, whilst reducing the top rate of income tax from 83 percent down to 40 percent.
A firm advocate of privatization, the first major industry to be sold from state ownership to shareholders was the telecommunication sector. Through this venture, Britain joined the US in being the only two countries in the world where the state did not have total control over telephones. The rest of the world believed that it was natural for it to be a state monopoly. Today, it is the likes of North Korea who continue to adhere to such a view.
Whilst manufacturing shrunk and the service sector grew, Thatcher turned her attention to the trade unions, the natural allies of the Labour Party. She did not budge from effectively shutting down the mining industry and destroying the livelihoods of mineworkers, which created irreparable damage. Her reasons were not due to a hatred for the working class, but rather her passion for economic restructuring, irrespective of the social costs involved.
Firmly believing in the idea of a low-tax, home-owning, share-holding democracy, her proposals for renewal were greeted with widespread political opposition, especially when they contained generous tax exemptions which led to her being labeled as the friend of the rich and powerful. One tremendous success that she nurtured has to be the creation and development of a modern financial district in the east of London by the banks of the River Thames, an area which was a derelict, crime-ridden wasteland in the 1980s, but witnessed a glorious Olympics last year due to its successful regeneration.
The 1980s witnessed low interest rates and inflation, coupled with high growth, which by the end of the decade was bringing unemployment down. Her policies generated winners and losers; the lives of the former improved in leaps and bounds, whereas the latter suffered in misery and hopelessness. The economic legacy of Thatcher can also be gauged more widely. The trade union movement in the UK in terms of membership is at half the level it was in 1979; globally it is a shadow of its former self. Moreover, governments, whatever their political leanings, do not possess the levers of the economy that they once did.
Privatization, once regarded as a slur, has entered and established itself in the economic lexicon as a norm. One may assert that since the global financial crisis, however, faith in the markets is not as deep as it once was. The overseeing, regulating role of the state has re-emerged as countries have had to readjust to new unfavorable circumstances. Her championing of monetarist policies and near-obsession with inflation no longer magnetically attract the countries in various continents battling with budget deficits and high unemployment.
Politically, Thatcher a failure
Secondly, in the political sphere Thatcher did not simply create a different style of government, but one of substance. Prior to her, prime ministers considered themselves as “first amongst equals,” whereas she clearly saw her role as dominating the cabinet. Those who served as ministers under her have frequently remarked upon her authoritarian tendencies, likening her to a headmistress. Therefore, she ended cabinet government under her premiership and instituted what was become the new norm in British politics: that of a presidential-style political leadership.
Desiring to be prime minister, she had long ago identified her weakness in terms of the shrillness of her voice and contacted Laurence Olivier to recommend a voice coach. To portray a positive, welcoming image she was the first politician to make extensive use of advertisers, which returned dividends in terms of three consecutive electoral victories -- another notable first. Nevertheless, despite her popularity, she was never able to unify the nation. Her detractors, usually on the left of the political spectrum, hated her with a vengeance. Local communities that had suffered at the hands of her economic policies vilified her. Without a doubt she had a much better image abroad than in many parts of her own country.
In terms of political evaluation, there is complete unity from all political sides that she was a failure. She had been interviewed in 1973 whilst a cabinet minister and asked if she would become the first woman prime minister. Her response was straightforward: “There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.” In the social circumstances of Britain at the time, she was probably right to think that, only to become the leader of the opposition two years later. She remains the only female prime minister of the UK.
Despite Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir holding elected office before her, Mrs. Thatcher was the first recognizable female political leader in the world. Her influence went far beyond the shores of Britain and paved the way for other female politicians such as Benazir Bhutto and Tansu Çiller, to name two.
Iron Lady Thatcher
Thirdly, in the international arena, by 1976 Soviet journalists had already labeled her the “Iron Lady” whilst leader of the opposition. When she became prime minister, Moscow had to deal with her staunch support for mounting the pressure on the Soviet regime. On the international stage, she was the close confidante and companion of Ronald Reagan, whilst enduring the animosity of Francois Mitterrand.
In foreign policy, while her stance of defending freedom and opposition to communism was commendable, she did make some misjudgments as well as a major mistake. The former was her strong opposition to sanctions against the South African government pursuing apartheid, especially for describing in 1987 the African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organization… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.” The thaw in the Cold War made such sentiments tough to comprehend.
Having left office, her defense of General Augusto Pinochet -- inviting him to tea at her home -- was even more difficult to explain away. Giving public support to the leader of a fascist junta, the likes of which in terms of brutality has few equals, besmirched Thatcher’s credentials as a supporter of human rights. Whilst Poles cherished the support she had freely given, Chilean democrats never forgave her.
That was not the only despicable act. The Australian foreign minister revealed immediately after her death that whilst in retirement, she had made racist comments to him, warning Australians to control Asian immigration so as not to alter their ethnic balance. For someone who was the prime minister of a multi-cultural society such as Britain to advocate such a racist policy is not only tough to digest, but hard to reconcile with a torch bearer of liberty and democracy against communism.
In 1982, when the Argentine Junta invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory in the South Atlantic, Thatcher was adamant that military force had to be countered with military force. We now know through newly released archival documents that there were some in her party who were fearful of the consequences of a military confrontation taking place more than 13,000 kilometers away. She demonstrated the steeliness of her character and the firm foundations of her convictions by not hesitating to send an armed force to repel the Argentine military, which was quickly done -- although at a cost of more than 250 dead.
Such actions certainly made her seem in public as a very strong leader, almost without any emotion, though that was not the case. During the Falklands conflict, each night before going to bed, she would write a personal letter to the family of each soldier who had lost his life in battle.
Her public display of courage was noted by all, political friend or foe alike, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- a terrorist group -- tried to murder her and her cabinet in 1984 by exploding a bomb at the hotel they were staying in. Whilst several died, Thatcher demonstrated coolness and resolve the very next morning, which won her great admiration from the whole nation. It seemed that no-one and nothing could unsettle the rock-solid prime minister.
This was chipped away by her noticeable fear, when her son went missing for six days in the Paris-Dakar rally as well as her delight when she declared outside the front steps of Downing Street in 1989 that she had become a grandmother. Such public displays were few and far between, however, as Thatcher held onto the reins of party and government with a passion.
Whilst all political leaders have power, few possess charisma. Lady Thatcher had both and the author of this article had the opportunity to witness first hand the latter, at a book signing in Central London 11 years ago. Old and visibly frail, it was possible to observe the political machinery still working like an expensive Swiss pocket watch behind those clear blue eyes.
Within four hours of hearing those blue eyes would never open again, more than 1 million tweets concerning Margaret Thatcher were posted. Some were incredibly cruel, others elevated her to sainthood. Her legacy was interpreted according to personal experiences and agendas. This was a consequence of the telecommunications revolution truly democratizing and encouraging the public to share their opinions, however vile and extreme they may be.
Later on in the evening, words turned into actions when small groups held street parties in several cities celebrating her death. Shops reduced the price of champagne to encourage further sales, thus hoping to increase their profits. When Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco died, many assert that the city of Barcelona ran out of champagne in a matter of hours. These celebrations, whatever their scale, inevitably draw parallels between Baroness Thatcher and General Franco, which makes one nauseous. Those individuals ought to have had the sensibility to remind themselves not to speak ill of the dead, let alone joyfully drink to her passing away. This was openly shared by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who found such parties in “poor taste. You’ve got to, even if you disagree with someone very strongly -- particularly at the moment of their passing -- show some respect.”
Probably the best evaluation of Thatcher and the debate surrounding her legacy was made by one of her cabinet ministers, Ken Clarke, the great political survivor who still serves in today’s cabinet: “I am almost amused … by the way she still polarizes debate. The right and the left have created myths about her government. … Some day somebody will have to write a sensible history of what actually happened. … Today is not the day to rewrite all these marvelous myths. … it is a tribute to the woman who made more difference to life in this country than any politician in my lifetime -- any peacetime politician.”
Judging her more than 20 years after she left office is still divisive and provokes much tension. The form of adversarial politics that Lady Thatcher participated in has reappeared in the discussions concerning her own place in history. Perhaps her legacy will be more objectively definable 20 years after her death -- that is, sometime in the late 2030s.