An octogenarian head of state has passed away, a former leader of a major economy who has divided opinion the world over, loved and hated, who instigated sweeping reforms and polarised a nation. Judging from recent headlines most people would expect the above to have been written about Nelson Mandela but in fact it was announced today that Margaret Thatcher has died of a stroke aged 87.
Divisive is the polite word the left leaning press and bloggers will use to describe Thatcher in an attempt to not speak ill of the dead. She was a leader who divided public opinion every step of the way. In recent years her request to have a state funeral became another contentious issue as the nation was once again divided over their opinion of Margaret Thatcher*. Throughout her life she sought conflict over consensus and drove deep permanent divides into the national psyche.
Right that’s the polite divisive bit out of the way…
Margaret Thatcher eviscerated this country’s manufacturing industry out of ideological zeal and a religious devotion to the free market. The resulting economy fallout devastated small towns that depended on manufacturing industry or coal mining. Some of these areas took years to recover (Liverpool’s dock yards is a good example) and some will never recover from their slide into urban decay after being forgotten about by successive generations of political leaders.
She passed laws deliberately designed to curtail the political power of her opponents, namely the trade union movement. Today’s trade unions are a shadow of their former selves and lack the influence not only to improve conditions but even to protect the rights workers already have which are bring eroded. In the 1980s she was content with making three million people who were unlikely to vote for her unemployed, something which would have been considered an economic disaster by previous Tory or Labour governments.
Thatcher expounded the idea that we would be better off if we all looked ourselves and the degree to which this idea has been taken on by the population is one of the reason we remain such a deeply divided and unequal society. Her government behaved appallingly to Ireland, attempted to levy taxes which fell disproportionately on the poor and passed laws forbidden teachers from telling students that homosexuality is natural. The swing away from manufacturing and towards financial industries lead and the aggressively corporate culture her policies encouraged lead to the financial crash and the banking crisis.
Thatcher’s greatest accomplishment (apart from becoming a one word political exclamation, an hour she shares with Tony Blair) is how she fundamentally changed British politics. Her emphasis of the free market over the state is now a universally accepted political truth. Thatcher successfully dragged the entire political spectrum to right, at least on economic issues, and her influence has been felt as profoundly on the Labour party as the Tories.
Labour leaders from the 1980s to today have accepted Thatcherite principals to a degree. In his statement following her death, Tony Blair commented that “some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour Government” (full statement can be found here). The current Labour leader Ed Miliband summed her legacy up most effectively by writing “she will be remembered as a unique figure. She reshaped the politics of a whole generation” (same source as above). I find it hard to imagine Tory party leaders speaking so highly of recently departed icons of the left. In fact when I think of the death of Labour party leaders from the 1980s and how the right responded I think of this disgusting Daily Mail piece.
Thatcher won three electoral victories and led the country for 12 years. In that time she permanently redefined the political and economic landscape the Great Britain. By the time she was ousted by her own party in November 1990, the trade unions had been diminished, manufacturing industry was one the way out, financial services and tertiary industries were on the rise, nationalised industries were privatised and Nash’s enlightened self-interest was the prevailing view in both the private and public sector. In short the Britain of the early 1990s was entirely changed from that of 1979 and no one person has had such a singular impact on the country as Margaret Thatcher has.
Describing Thatcher as divisive is more than just a polite way to say that she is very unpopular in certain circles (or parts of the country) and that a lot people strongly disagree with her values and policies. Someone’s opinion on Thatcher cuts to the heart of where you stand in British politics. We have seen leftist leaders saying that they disagreed with her but respect who she was, which some would argue reflects how centrist the leftwing establishment has become in the post-Thatcher years. Her biggest champions are the leaders of the economic right; her biggest critics are the darlings of the old left (Ken Livingston described her as clinically insane in an interview with the New Statesmen magazine before 2012 London Mayoral elections).
Personally I feel her views on the merits of self-interest, especially the infamous ‘no such thing as society’ comment, are the most despicable of political opinions. I cannot disagree enough with this view and feel that society has been made a colder, darker and less compassionate place by the ruthless pursuit of money which her polices endorsed. It is because of the values she inspired that it is always acceptable to disregard human well-being when doing business. The worst excesses of private business from the banking crisis to third world sweat shops are legitimised by governments who refuse to involve themselves in market and by individuals who argue for enlightened self-interest. All of which Thatcher was an icon for.
I began by saying Thatcher was divisive, as is anything written about her. Most people’s response to this article will have already been determined before they started reading as their opinion on Thatcher is fixed deep within their political ideology. At the time of her death, we remain a deeply divided nation. Divided by class, region, wealth and how we response to the death of someone who will continue to cast a very long shadow over British politics.
*Contrary to her request she is receiving a ceremonial funeral with military honours, the level below a state funeral)