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Britons Divided Over Thatcher’s Legacy

Newspapers in LondonMargaret Thatcher’s death on Monday rehashed the debate about the former British prime minister’s legacy. Headlines from “The Woman Who Divided a Nation” to “The Woman Who Saved Britain” piled on newsstands across London. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

For the past few years, Margaret Thatcher made the occasional appearance in the world press: seen at the unveiling of an official portrait, at the funeral of a political friend, sitting quietly at the kickoff of a seminar series on her premiership. In each photo she looked a little smaller, a little frailer, and was said to be losing her memory.

The battles she unleashed inside her own country and had a hand in unleashing throughout the west continued for years after she left office, unceremoniously dumped as Conservative leader in the face of declining popularity and a creeping exhaustion with her style. You might have guessed there would be different versions of the Thatcher years written in the days after death Monday at 87. What’s grabbed me is how easily the old debates have re-inflamed Britain 20 years after the Right Honourable Member for Finchley sat on the Tory front benches in parliament.

The people who hated her, do still. The people who credit her with restoring national greatness in a demoralized and hobbling Britain, still do. One columnist in the Financial Times marveled at how, in retrospect, she turned out to be right, about almost everything. Other opinion writers tried to remind their countrymen and women, and school those who were too young or not even born, about just how tough those times were.

The opening for Margaret Thatcher came with the winter of 1978-79, the “Winter of Discontent,” that saw Britain freeze through an unusually cold winter and withstand massive strikes by public and private sector workers. The affable James Callaghan was sometimes called “Sunny Jim,” but gambling on waiting until 1979 for a general election to improve his Labour Party’s electoral prospects turned out to be disastrous. Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher romped home with a solid parliamentary majority and the stated ambition to remake the country.

This week in Britain every radio and television talk show, every newspaper column, and many less formal interactions out on the streets and in the shops seem to bring up Margaret Thatcher. Both chambers in Britain’s national legislature, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, held hours of formal session debating the Thatcher legacy. The cleavages she magnified in British society are still on view 34 years after she moved into 10 Downing Street. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said “Successive governments had failed to deal with what was beginning to be called the British disease. Let this be her epitaph: she made the country great again.”

Carefully calibrating his critique to the moment, the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Ed Miliband, said at a special parliamentary session Wednesday that while “you can disagree with Margaret Thatcher,” she “sought to be rooted in people’s daily lives. But she also believed that ideology mattered. Not for her the contempt sometimes heaped on ideas and new thinking in political life. And while she never would have claimed to be, or wanted to be seen as an intellectual, she believed, and she showed, that ideas matter in politics.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, October 1981. Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images.

Outside of party leadership, partisans could afford to be tougher. Not invoking national greatness but the social crises of the early 1980s, actress-turned-member of Parliament Glenda Jackson said that Thatcher promoted “greed, selfishness and no care for the weaker.”

“By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was certainly not only in London, but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless. They grew in the thousands. And many of those homeless people had been thrown out onto the streets from the … closure of the long-term mental hospitals,” said Jackson.

Though the American economy had also been through some really tough times in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that had not prepared me for the close-up view of the early Thatcher years in Britain, where I moved as a young reporter in 1980. My West London neighbors were afraid of the times and an even worse future. Though the closing coal mines and steel mills were far away in other parts of the country, the images of shuttered businesses and lengthening lines for government benefits were everywhere.

Labour Party leaders confidently predicated that the country would never stand for two million, then two-and-a-half million, then three million unemployed. The jobless numbers blew past all those milestones, and many working-class Britons in their 50s and 60s wondered if they would ever have a job again.

The cartoonists — left, right, and center — had a field day with the easily caricatured prime minister. They exaggerated her aquiline nose, slight overbite and extravagant head of hair. Right wing newspapers showed the prime minister as the ancient British tribal queen Boadicea, who fought off invading Romans in the first century. Left wing cartoonists showed a cruel leader making war on the poor, with the same luxurious bouffant.

During an hour-long interview in 1993, the Baroness Thatcher was as unrelenting, uncompromising and unreflective as ever. She expressed no regrets over the poll tax which played a big part in her ouster, over the reversed guilty verdicts in notorious Irish Republican Army bombing cases tainted by police misconduct or for the refusal to join the gradual diplomatic isolation of South Africa’s white minority government, still in power when we spoke.

She entered the studio, was genial, inquired about the format of the radio program, how long we would speak and where she would sit. Crisis one arrived with the headphones: no one had told Lady Thatcher we would be taking phone calls in the second half of the program, and we would somehow have to get those headphones over her formidable head of hair. She tried them upside down around her chin and over the back of her neck. Finally, they had to be pressed down over the top of her head.

She arrived that afternoon ready for battle. We covered a lot of ground, and boy, was she tough. She talked about the defeat of socialism, the massive pushback against the power of trade unions in Britain, and the alliance with the United States. She was clearly possessed of a formidable intellect, and had spent decades in the parry and thrust of the much more demanding style of parliamentary debate in the UK. At the same time you could tell that my old London neighbors could be abstractions to her, rather than proud people who wanted to work and didn’t understand what was happening to their country. I never expected Lady Thatcher, even in retirement, to agree with her adversaries, but what struck me was her inability to even understand their points of view. Many of her constituents were thrilled when she tossed away decades of consensus-style politics in her Downing Street years. Her slashing, imperious style of dealing with friend and foe alike meant that when political trouble came, she had few friends left even among her closest allies.

Yes, she evicted the Argentines from the Falkland Islands. Yes, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Reagan in opposing Soviet power, and shoulder to shoulder with George H.W. Bush in kicking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait. Much less talked about is the Big Bang, the thorough restructuring and deregulation of the London markets overseen by Prime Minister Thatcher. In the early years the Big Bang cemented London’s stature as one of the world’s financial powerhouses. Today critics around the world point to the Big Bang and the further deregulation under Tony Blair in 1997 as the policies that made the recent financial crises more severe and more dangerous than they ever would have been before.

In today’s Britain, strikes are relatively rare. The unions are a shadow of what they were during the Winter of Discontent. The two main parties of government, Conservative and Labour, are much closer in their view of the role of the state in the economy and the British military in the world than they were when Thatcher came to power. But the country’s problems today are very different from when the first and only woman prime minister came to power. The very financiers Thatcher sought to free from government interference are now held responsible for the continuing austerity and the slow speed of Britain’s recovery. Thatcher’s death has given the British people a chance to debate once again the changes she brought, and what they still mean today.

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