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A Look at Thatcherism, the Polarizing Legacy of Britain’s ‘Iron Lady’

The death of Margaret Thatcher, whose leadership had global ramifications, has opened up old wounds for some British citizens. For more on the controversial legacy of Britain’s "Iron Lady," Gwen Ifill talks with Time magazine’s assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar and John Burns, London bureau chief for The New York Times.

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    For another look at the controversial legacy of the Iron Lady, I'm joined by Rana Foroohar, TIME magazine's assistant managing editor for economics and business, and John Burns, London bureau chief of The New York Times.

    Welcome to you both.

    John, in the United States, Margaret Thatcher is being embraced as this transformational figure, kind of a Reagan across the pond. Is she being seen the same way there?

  • JOHN BURNS, The New York Times:

    Well, of course, there's a significant, though I think minority, opinion in this country that disliked Mrs. Thatcher and in some quarters even hated her

    But I think that the overwhelming opinion in this country and in widely distinct political quarters, certainly including principal political parties, she is viewed, as so many have said in the last 24 hours, as one of the greatest prime ministers this country has had and possibly the greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century.


    Rana, you not only cover economics and business, but you also lived in Great Britain for nine years. How divided is opinion about her?


    Well, I have always seen Thatcher as a very divisive category in a lot of ways.

    In some ways, I think her economic legacy is rosiest outside of Britain. The commentary, of course, with her passing has been, as John said, very positive in many ways, but I think that, inside Britain, particularly on the left, she was a very, very polarizing figure.

    You know, she did some very important things to modernize the country, to make the labor markets more flexible, to better prepare Britain for globalization. But it was a very, very painful process. I think that conservatives in the U.S. have often embraced her and paired her, as you say, with Ronald Reagan, although I see them in very different lights.

    I think that, in some ways, Mrs. Thatcher was much better at austerity than Ronald Reagan was. She actually cut the budgets and public spending as a percentage of the economy in Britain, whereas spending went up under Reagan. They were both tax-cutters, but she was more successful, perhaps, at austerity.


    Let's talk about that, John Burns, for better or for worse her legacy, especially on matters like austerity.


    Well, I think you have to have a baseline.

    And the baseline would be the mid to late 1970s. This country was in a truly terrible state, in a state that most Americans of my age would simply not recognize. People would have to go back to the Great Depression. I mean, there were inflation rates running at over 20 percent.

    There were endless strikes. There were three-day working weeks. The nationalized industries, coal, power, steel, the railways, telecommunications, were vastly over manned, hugely inefficient. The automobile industry, which had once been one of the great exporters and one of the great prides of this country, was on its knees.

    The biggest car manufacturer in the country had come into public ownership. The country was in a really, truly dire state. And I think it needed the radicalism of Mrs. Thatcher, who, by the way, had to defy opinion, I would be inclined to say the majority opinion in her own cabinet, to make the changes that she did.

    And the Britain that I live in today is just unrecognizable compared with that. And I think if people took a really hard look back over those 35 or more years, they will agree that nobody would want to return to that chaos. She put the country back on a trajectory, an upward trajectory.

    The Britain I grew up in, in the wake of the Second World War, was a country which was in precipitous decline, which had entirely lost its national self-confidence. And Mrs. Thatcher put that right.


    Well, Rana, I'm curious, was she in the wrong — a couple of examples — the right or the wrong history on things like South Africa?


    Well, I think that some South Africans would certainly say that she was on the wrong side.

    You know, again, she was a very polarizing figure. I think that, as John said, her legacy has to be looked at in — with the benchmark at that time. One of the things that I think is most fascinating right now is her view on Europe. She was very forward-minded in terms of saying that Europe had a choice to make about whether it was going to be deeper or broader in terms of how it expanded or integrated.

    And I think that was quite prescient. I think that Mrs. Thatcher itself would have gone for broader, because of course she felt politically that the Eastern Bloc countries should be taken into the E.U. Many people today feel that the E.U. is too large, that there are too many countries with diverse agendas and that it really can't be maintained with the size it is now, and that the Eurozone crisis is part and parcel of that.

    So it's interesting. I mean, her opinions about austerity, about Europe, about globalization are as relevant, certainly, for discussion as they ever were.


    Well, as you — we look at legacy, we talk about legacy after people of this substance pass away.

    And I wonder, Rana, whether — who you would identify as the heirs to her world view. Now that she's gone, does what she believed in, does it still sustain?


    Well, it's interesting.

    I think that in some ways, the heirs may be in the emerging markets in the developing world, because those countries, countries like China, Brazil, India, South Africa even, they are at the stage in development where many of her economic ideas about privatization, about the push forward of markets and the rollback of the state are more relevant.

    I think, in the West, we're at a point where people are thinking about markets being broken and the fact that we may need more state involvement in things like regulation. But in places like China, like Brazil, there is certainly still a role for more opening, more liberalization and more privatization. And so I think that she would have a lot to say about what was going on in those countries today.


    Final thought on that, John Burns?


    Oh, I think Rana is correct about that.

    There was bound to be a correction. The Thatcher/Reagan model of free market development definitely, as we saw over the last 10 years, brought with it a lot of irresponsible behavior, and which has now caused the kind of chaos that we see across much of the developed world and certainly much of Europe. So there was a correction.


    John Burns of The New York Times, Rana Foroohar of TIME magazine, thank you both so much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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