Monday, April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Dies

When I checked my e-mail this morning, I saw that former Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unwell for many years, had passed away.

Thatcher remembered: "Even Maggie Didn't Sink This Low"
The first thing that came to mind was a facebook group I once saw called “We’ll only give Margaret Thatcher a state funeral if we can bury her alive”.

The second was a lecture for the British History Since 1750 class that I once took at King’s College in London.  Normally, the lecturers sailed in and, sans preamble, launched into their remarks.  But one day, the day that we were due to discuss the 1980s, the lecturer paused at the outset and said something along the lines of, “Today we’re going to discuss Margaret Thatcher and conservatism.  Now I know that many of you will have strong feelings about her already.  Some of you might come from households where she is regarded as someone akin to the anti-Christ” (I paraphrase, but think I manage to capture the spirit of his comment), “and others might have grown up hearing about her as a saviour-like figure.  But our job as historians is to put our a priori conceptions aside and start from the bottom up”.

It is a testament to Thatcher’s transformative effect on Britain that a university lecture about her era would have to be prefaced by such remarks.  Before George W Bush, I can think of no U.S. president who would be as polarising to students in the present day.  Even Reagan, who shared many of Thatcher’s attributes, does not stir the passions of those on the political left and right quite as strongly as Thatcher did in Britain.

The strong views about her legacy are understandable.  She launched a redistribution of wealth and power in British society which was carried out ruthlessly, and often accompanied by and met with physical violence.  She did great social and structural violence to institutions which meant a great deal to very many people in Britain.  She claimed that individuals, rather than society, make up our world.

Before there was Sarah Palin, Margaret Thatcher spoke directly to people’s basest instincts and invited Britons to hate one another.  Before we had Mitt Romney to complain about the “47%”, Margaret Thatcher articulated a worldview based around “makers versus takers”, and invited Britons to form battle lines to fight a new kind of class war, in which she skilfully pitted the working and middle classes against one another while the plutocracy armed itself in the shadows.

Her ideological alterations to society were preceded by apocalyptic political battles, as she actively sought to destroy the source of her political opponents’ support.  She crushed some industries and brutally restructured others, extirpating strong and proud working traditions in Wales, Scotland, and the north of England, places where people still speak darkly of her reign to this day.  The police and the special forces became political tools used to destroy resistance from unions.  When the Greater London Council had the temerity to challenge her, she disbanded the organisation, foreclosing yet another space for opposition organisation. 

Many argue that Britain needed some kind of shock in the late-1970s to bring it out of a social and economic funk.  Thatcher certainly provided that much.  But when society was redrawn, it was far more unequal, and the consensus about the responsibilities of the state to all of its people, rather than to simply the wealthy and powerful, had been shattered.

Done in by the gap between her own fundamentalism and her party’s electoral pragmatism, Thatcher was soon resuscitated by the Tory right, and every Prime Minister since has gone grovelling to her for a photo-op.  One part of her legacy is the fear she injected into the Labour Party, which long aped Thatcher’s Tories in word and deed.  

But she has also become a kind of barometer for extremism.  Today, protesters and politicians on the left invoke her assault on civil society when attacking David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister who sought to emulate her in some respects while repudiating her extremism.  Cameron, some on the left say, is even worse than Thatcher, and accusation guaranteed to elicit a gasp of horror from union households, students, and anyone from those parts of the country which were victims of her realignment. 

Like Major and Blair and Cameron after her, Thatcher was an ardent supporter of Britain’s corrupt arms industry.  She was an unflinching backer of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile and a defender of Pinochet after he fell from power.  And she gave great moral and material comfort to the apartheid regime in South Africa, also praising the likes of Kenyan dictator Daniel Arap Moi even as he unleashed a regime of torture and imprisonment on all opposition.

They say that one oughtn’t to speak ill of the dead, but I’m guessing there’ll be some bonfires in the Welsh valleys and north of the Cheviot Hills tonight.

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