Despite what one says about Margaret Thatcher, her place in history has already been written as one of the most influential British leaders in recent times. Some, like David Cameron, considers her as the greatest peacetime Prime Minister, someone who saved the country. Many others also acknowledge that she changed not only the political landscape but also the social fabric of the country – more of a controversial and confrontational leader, who destroyed the industrial and welfare base of Britain creating a society based on greed.
The Baroness was unique, becoming Britain (and Europe’s) first woman Prime Minister, rising to power against all odds in a male-dominant political establishment. From being a grocer’s daughter, she graduated in chemistry at Oxford and later studied law after marrying a rich industrialist. Her Methodist upbringing, which she retained, was shaped by her preacher father.
When entering Parliament, Thatcher was the youngest of only 25 women MPs. She was elected to a safe Conservative seat in Finchley, with a large Jewish population, with whom she developed a long-term association and became an ardent supporter for Israel. Her proximity to the Jewish community was later demonstrated by the disproportionate number of Jewish ministers in her cabinets.
After her initial post as Shadow Spokesperson on Energy policy, she served as Secretary of State for Education and Science as the only woman in the Heath Government between 1970 and 1974. It was then that she abolished free milk in school for over sevens, earning the unflattering title of the ‘Milk Snatcher.’ It was also her promotion of private funding for secondary and university education that helped to earn the description in one newspaper of ‘the most unpopular woman in Britain.’
More than anything, Thatcher is remembered for her convictions and single-mindedness, much of which unfortunately proved to be very divisive and significant repercussions of the society. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, poverty went up from 13.4% of the population in 1979 who lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs to 22.2% before she was forced out of office in 1990. The gap between rich and poor, as well as in the North-South divide, widened amid rapid unemployment.
She has the distinction of having an economic model named after her, where the frontiers of capitalism were extended into the heart and soul of the country, including the privatisation of state industries and selling off of social housing. Some also blame her for squandering the wealth of North Sea oil and for laying the foundations that led to the current economic crash.
The late former Prime Minister is also particularly remembered by the British labour movement, for taking on the once powerful Mineworker’s Union, forcing it to call a strike on her terms and in the process destroying it by drafting in police from all over the country. She even referred to the striking miners as the ‘enemy within’ and in winning the battle she effectively destroyed the backbone of the old Labour Party.
In Northern Ireland, she is accused of prolonging the conflict that reached its height during her rule. Further afield, her belligerence was shown in militarily taking on Argentina in a war that may have been avoided over the Falklands, accepting the support of Chilean dictator Pinochet when none was forthcoming from the US. Thatcher also supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia while remaining opposed to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, declaring the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela as terrorists.
It was her close relationship with US President Ronald Reagan that defined much of her foreign policy, each being dogmatic in their hard-line monetarist policies and their deeply distrust of a perceived expansion of communism. The special relationship was founded in the belief that America’s military might have kept the world stable. Britain procured Trident nuclear weapons, allowed the expansion of US bases and the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common at a time she insisted the country was not a poodle, but a staunch ally.
In June 2005, in a speech to the Nato Council meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, Thatcher argued that following the end of Cold War, Nato should be prepared to extend its sphere of operation beyond Europe, towards the Muslim world. “It is not long since some of us had to go the Arabian Gulf to keep oil supplies flowing during Iraq-Iran war.” She added that with the spread of sophisticated weapons and military technology to the Middle East, “potential threats to Nato territory may originate more from outside Europe.”
Out of the office, as Baroness Thatcher, she supported Bosnia and Herzegovina against the invasion by Serbia in 1990s and condemned Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for not supporting Bosnia. She wanted Bosnia to be armed and even wanted Serbia to be attacked. Then Defence Minister, Malcolm Rifkind, described her views as “emotional nonsense”.
Baroness Thatcher hosted a dinner for President of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, in London in March 1998, showing her support. This was surprising as Prime Minister, she refused to criticise then President of Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, for using force against the Baltic states and in the Caucasus.
She also upset the Muslim community just after 9/11 terrorist attacks by accusing Muslim leaders of not condemning the terror attacks enough.
Just after 9/11 even though Muslim leaders, including The Muslim News had unreservedly condemned the terrorists attacks within hours of it happening, and continued to do so, Thatcher still said she had “not heard enough condemnation from Muslim priests” of the terror attacks. Former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, said “those sorts of comments from someone with the reputation of Margaret Thatcher can only encourage” those with racist tendencies to act. The Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi, demanded that Lady Thatcher be prosecuted for her “inflammatory and irresponsible remarks against Muslims” as her remarks were “deliberate and provocative at such a sensitive time.” Versi was concerned her remarks would increase attacks on Muslims who were already under attack by extremists.
Thatcher equated September 11 terrorists with communism. “The best parallel is with early communism. Islamic terrorism today, like Bolshevism in the past, is an armed doctrine,” she said in February 2002.
There is no doubt that Thatcher had many admirable personal traits in her belief in the work ethic, thrift and determination in sticking to convictions. As the Iron Lady, she succeed against adversity in raising the mantle and perceptions of women becoming the longest continuously serving prime minister (until Tony Blair) and winning three general elections leading from the front. Whatever one can say about her, she spoke her mind.
It is indeed rare to change such landscapes that included removing many of the traditional paternalistic instincts of her own party and in effect creating the New Labour. But many people were left trampled upon in rolling back the role of the state and wiping out of much of the country’s industrial bases in favour of a free market and a deregulated financial sector. There is a fine line between unadulterated individualism and creating a society to be selfish. Giving everything a price and at a heavy cost to the health of communities.
Society as such seems to have lost much and the tragedy is that her policies were followed eagerly by Tony Blair as the heir to her legacy. There is now talk that Prime Minister David Cameron may revert to focus more on Thatcherite policies at the next election despite the extent of economic destruction already being suffered from her legacies.