Monday, May 4, 2009

Its Attilla The Hen Day

Thirty years ago today, Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer, ascended to the position of Prime Minister. Britain was in economic disarray from Labour's post WWII socialist policies. PM Thatcher would be ushered out of office near a decade later by members of her own party, the Tories, over her refusal to countenance surrendering any more of Britain's sovereign powers to the EU. In between, she changed the fabric of her nation, leaving it far stronger than she found it.

For that, she is beloved by conservatives in Britain (a group not synonymous with the Tory Party). And for her capitalist policies and iron will to overcome all that the left could throw in her path, she is reviled by the socialists. Those feelings on both sides run as hot today as they did a quarter century ago. Her legacy in the short run has suffered from years of smearing at the BBC and a left who teach school children of the wisdom of Clement Attlee while giving short shrift to the likes of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

You can see a range of opinions and retrospectives on the former Prime Minister in the UK papers today. I have collected some below:

This from the Times editorial board on Margaret Thatcher:

. . . Many of the arguments that dominated the political debate before Mrs Thatcher came to office now seem extraordinary. Did the Government really try to control inflation by setting the price of supermarket goods by committee? Did it really prevent citizens from spending currency abroad? Did it really try to settle national strikes by according union leaders semi-official status? That no mainstream politician would dream of advocating any of these things now is testament to her political success.

It is hard to recall that when Margaret Thatcher set her face against prices and incomes policy, union power and exchange controls it was she who was considered outlandish. It was regarded as inevitable that her policy of driving down inflation without an incomes policy would have to be reversed when unemployment became unmanageable. She would be forced to make a U-turn. And perhaps, had the Falklands conflict and the choice of Michael Foot as Labour leader not intervened, she would indeed have been forced to choose between a U-turn and political defeat. She would now be remembered as a political cautionary tale rather than as a political heroine.

Fortune, however, favoured the bold. Mrs Thatcher was able to see through her programme while enjoying fantastic political success. Even now the policies she pursued are hotly controversial. So is her extremely combative personality. But her answer to the critics is simple — what she did was necessary and overcoming resistance to it was hard. The social dislocation experienced by some was, however regrettable, hard to avoid. The pain felt during the medical procedure she undertook resulted from the extent of the injuries she was seeking to heal rather than from the callousness of the surgeon or the refusal to take an alternative course.

There are criticisms of Margaret Thatcher’s governments that stand more scrutiny than those that suggest a softer landing was possible for the British economy. It is unfortunate that she did not accompany her economic liberalism with more political and social liberalism. And the tone of her administration sometimes moved from being necessarily tough to being unnecessarily arrogant. There is also a criticism from the Right — that she did not do enough to reshape public services or reduce the size of the State.

Yet against these criticisms is another simple fact. It was not simply economically that the Thatcher governments achieved a transformation. Socially they challenged the elitism of closed institutions and the pessimism of the Establishment. Margaret Thatcher stood for modernisation, meritocracy and optimism about Britain’s future. . . .

Read the entire article.

And from London's colorful Mayor Boris Johnson, writing in the Telegraph, a very thoughtful essay on the life and legacy of PM Thatcher:

In the course of researching this article I approached an intelligent 15 year-old girl. She had been born three years after Margaret Thatcher left office. She had never seen her in action. She had no personal memories of any of the great controversies of the Thatcher epoch. And, therefore, she struck me as a perfect source for an understanding of the full semiotic range of the words "Margaret Thatcher" in the minds of young people today. This schoolgirl had been taught by good left-liberal teachers. She had read the papers and listened all her life to the BBC, and she had the normal British teenager's range of cultural references. I tried a word-association test. "So what do you think," I asked her, "when I say the words 'Margaret Thatcher' "? She paused, and then she said: "Billy Elliott." [For we across the pond, that was a movie which used PM Thatcher's breaking of the unions as its backdrop and portrayed PM Thatcher in an unflattering light]

And there, my friends, you have the cultural war that continues to this day – 30 years after she came to power – over the legacy of Britain's first female prime minister. Not since Napoleon has a nation been so divided over the merits of a former leader. For millions of young people who have watched Billy Elliott, Thatcher is the evil, boss-eyed termagant whose disastrous economic philosophy was responsible for the break-up of ancient Hovis-ad mining communities, and whose awful blurtings of right-wing dogma inspired all that was basest in human nature. She was a semi-ludicrous mixture of Boudicca and Queen Victoria, who whipped up her folk to ecstasies of cretinous Brussels-bashing. She was the creator the Yuppies and Essex Man, and the spiritual godmother of all the red-braced spivs and champagne-guzzling wide boys who have done so much damage with their greed and their recklessness – and it is a measure of her totemic status that people manage to blame her for the credit crunch almost two decades after she left office.

You try going on the BBC's Question Time and announcing that you are a Thatcherite. You will see the audience scratching and raging and panting like flea-ridden gibbons because Thatcher is a boo-word in British politics, a shorthand for selfishness and me-first-ism, and devil-take-the-hindmost and grinding the faces of the poor. . . .

. . . It is very hard to explain to young people the atmosphere of morbid self-pity that used to hang over Britain in the Seventies. British brands that had once been the envy of the world – machines whose manufacturers had out-engineered the Wehrmacht – had been reduced to laughing stocks, their reputations destroyed by a lethal combination of management inertia and union militancy. The country had so drifted from an understanding of free-market economics that Tony Benn actually tried to revive the motorbike industry with a sort of crazed commie collective at Meriden. There were endless strikes, and three-day weeks, and power cuts, and looming over it all was the Cold War – and the constant anxiety that we would somehow be embroiled in a conflict with the nasty, militaristic and totalitarian Soviet Union, a horrible place of gulags and lawless persecutions. Our food was ranked among the worst in Europe – by the British middle classes themselves.

Our children's teeth were ruined by a diet of Spangles, Curly-Wurlies and Tizer, and our weather was lousy. Mrs Thatcher set about changing virtually everything, except possibly the weather. . . .

[As regards the Falkland Islands, the] Argentinian junta had taken by violence a British protectorate, in clear contravention both of international law and the wishes of the islanders. It took fantastic balls to send the antiquated British Navy half-way round the world, and risk disaster on those desolate beaches and moors. It took nerves of steel to sink the Belgrano, and, frankly, I don't think there were any other Tory politicians who would have done it. She showed a streak of absolute ruthlessness in defence of British interests, and, as the Eighties went on, it was clear that she was broadly right about the economy as well. Together with Norman Tebbit, she did what Barbara Castle had tried and failed to do – to dethrone the union bosses and give British industry a chance.

By the time Arthur Scargill took the miners out on strike, I was firmly on her side. He was simply increasing the difficulties of a declining industry, and what the script of Billy Elliott will not tell you is that Scargill never held a proper ballot. By the end of the Eighties, she had cut taxes and the economy was roaring away; and it wasn't just that the country as a whole seemed to have recovered some of its confidence and standing in the world. Individuals were able to take control of their destiny in a new way. They were no longer completely beholden to local authorities for their housing: they could buy their own homes, and to this day, as any Tory canvasser will tell you, there are people across Britain who will always vote Tory in thanks for that freedom alone.

She gave people the confidence to buy shares, to start their own businesses, to move on and up in society – and there was more social mobility under Margaret Thatcher than there has been since. She was a liberator, and she gave the Labour party such an intellectual thrashing that they ended up changing their name. In some ways, the most significant political legacy of Margaret Thatcher is New Labour (now being abolished by Gordon Brown). Yes, she was provocative, and there are huge numbers of people who will never forgive her for saying that "there is no such thing as society. There are men and women, and there are families." It sounds frighteningly atomistic and strident, and does not seem to reflect the duty we all owe to each other.

But she believed she had to shatter the post-war consensus that the solution to every problem was always an expansion of the state. Indeed, she did not think much of the word consensus itself, since it was not only too Latinate for her taste but also because it probably masked a conspiracy by cowardly politicians to dodge the hard questions, and, if you look at the consensus that now exists around, say, academic selection, you can see that she is right.

Margaret Thatcher will always divide the British people, not least since we are ourselves divided. There is a part of us that will always dislike the acquisitive, appetitive instincts she seemed to espouse, and yet we also recognise that they are essential for economic success. More than any leader since Churchill, she said thought-provoking things about the relationship between the state and the individual. Some of them were unpalatable, some of them were exaggerated. But much of what she said was necessary, and it took a woman to say it.

Read the entire article.

Interestingly enough, I found no such retrospective in the Guardian, the unabashedly left wing paper in Britain that has long enjoyed the sport of Thatcher bashing. I hesitate to speculate as to the motivation for their silence.

At any rate, history, it is said, is written by the victor. It may well be that Margaret Thatcher's legacy in the British history books awaits the outcome of the campaign that Thatcher, like Churchill before her, waged against socialism. That is a battle still very much at issue. Churchill lost that battle. Thatcher won some major battles, mostly on the economic front. It is in the social and cultural arenas that the battleground now lies - and in the halls of the EU.

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