Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s “Iron Lady,” whose 11 ½ years as prime minister transformed British society as much as it did British politics, has died of a stroke, according to reports. She was 87.
Lady Thatcher, who was made a life peer, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, in 1992, was Britain’s first female head of government and held office longer than any other 20th-century prime minister. Yet even more remarkable than the duration of her stay at No. 10 Downing Street was its impact.
No one realized this better than her ideological opposite, Tony Benn, for many years leader of the radical wing of Britain’s Labor Party. “The prime ministers who are remembered are those who think and teach, and not many do,” Benn once said of his much-reviled foe. “Mrs. Thatcher … influenced the thinking of a generation.”
Lady Thatcher became prime minister in May 1979, 18 months before her friend Ronald Reagan was elected president. Perhaps Deng Xiaoping, John Paul II, and, later, Mikhail Gorbachev played a more significant role in the worldwide rightward shift that marked the final quarter of the 20th century. None, however, more clearly symbolized that shift, or worked more enthusiastically to further it, than Reagan and Lady Thatcher.
“I am not a consensus politician, she announced upon assuming leadership of the Conservative Party in February 1975. “I am a conviction politician.” Lady Thatcher’s convictions — in favor of free-market economics and Victorian values, against state socialism and personal permissiveness — were deeply polarizing (something she readily, even proudly admitted) and flew in the face of several decades of British politics. “There is no such thing as society,” she said in 1987, indicating her commitment to the primacy of the individual and markets.
Prior to Lady Thatcher’s coming to power, postwar Britain had been defined by “Butskellism,” as it was called, after two leading politicians of the 50s, the Conservative Rab Butler and the Laborite Hugh Gaitskell. The term stood for a tacit agreement on the need for government intervention in economic and social policy to provide for the common good.
“Thatcherism,” the only ism ever named for a British prime minister, rejected that consensus. It counted among its achievements privatizing such state-run enterprises as British Airways and Rolls-Royce, tripling the number of Britons who owned stock, and increasing home ownership by more than 25 percent. Critics, however, cited unemployment levels during the early ‘80s not seen since the Great Depression and an unprecedented fraying of the nation’s social fabric.
Thatcherism was as much about style as policy. As proudly middle class as its namesake, it disdained aristocratic snobbery as well as working-class egalitarianism. Thatcherism was about getting things done rather than getting along or going along. The taste for irony and understatement evinced by such Conservative predecessors as Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath was utterly alien to Lady Thatcher. Defiantly impolitic, she said what she meant — and invariably said it bluntly. “I always found the most effective weapon was ‘No’ or sometimes ‘No, No, No!,’“ she said in her maiden speech to the House of Lords.
Lady Thatcher’s blend of candor and assertiveness entranced supporters and enraged opponents. Unlike Reagan, whose affability helped make his policies popular, she earned a reputation for inflexibility, stridency, and arrogance. Rather than regretting such an image, Lady Thatcher seemed to revel in it. “I think sometimes the prime minister should be intimidating,” she once said. “There’s not much point being a weak, floppy thing in the chair, is there?”
Certainly, Lady Thatcher’s forceful manner and disdain for compromise proved crucial in two of her greatest triumphs: Britain’s victory over Argentina in the Falklands War, in 1982; and the nationwide coal strike that began in March 1984 and ended with the crushing of the miners’ union a year later.
Further complicating Lady Thatcher’s image was her sex. “She is so clearly the best man among them,” wrote a Laborite minister, Barbara Castle, upon Lady Thatcher’s election as Conservative leader. The choice of noun was apt as well as pointed. Lady Thatcher had learned early on that she could ill afford to seem weak in what she once described as the “noisy, boisterous, masculine world” of the House of Commons.
Yet being a woman proved even more an asset than liability. It lent Lady Thatcher a special fascination, something felt not just by voters and Conservative MPs but other world leaders, as well. Pondering Lady Thatcher’s capacity to combine fierceness and femininity, French President Francois Mitterand observed, “She has the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” Or as pop star Geri Halliwell put it, “We Spice Girls are true Thatcherites. Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology — Girl Power.” Continued...