As many of you know, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on 8 April, had her funeral last week in London. Up until the recent tragedy at the Boston Marathon, Thatcher's death was the lead article. The word that was thrown around continuously was the idea that Thatcher was "divisive" and that her death was surrounded by controversy about her legacy. Numerous groups and invididuals attacked the former Prime Minister for her economic and social reforms, while other tended to revere her for saving Britain.
If you have been consuming all this media and are confused about what to think, you are not alone. I'm struggling with what I feel is Thatcher's legacy. Certain parts of it are simply matters of fact. She cut taxes for the country's elite. She opposed European integration. She didn't relax immigration policies. She stood firm in the struggles in Ireland. What these facts mean requires some careful consideration. Any one of those particular items can be viewed positively or negatively because they are value judgments. And this is my point right here: the idea of encapsulating someone's legacy as good or bad is generally rather difficult in the best of circumstances, though it's certainly preposterous in Thatcher's case. She's complicated, much like each of her individual attributes or her individual policies. I, therefore, am reacting to the fact that media outlets are obsessed with having the last word about her legacy as positive or negative. She was quite a lot of both.
I am not alone in viewing much of Thatcherism as a terrible thing, but I'm also quick to point out that Thatcher certainly had numerous positive impacts: she was nominally pro-choice, supported limited equality rights for queer people, she was the first female leader of a developed country, and recognised that climate change was happening. I'm also careful to note that her policies were reactions to calls from people in various parts of society for change. The most forgotten element in the discussions about Thatcher is the question of to what degree was Britain stagnant or collapsing in the 1970s. There's no right answer, of course, but the more this is explored, the more complicated evaluating Thatcher becomes.
Despite the fact that I have some respect for standing up Thatcher, I'm very much critical of her impact on modern politics. It's not impossible to evaluate her as being simultaneously a devastating force while likewise also fostering desirable growth. There are several angles I'd like to briefly explore.
The first item is that conservative figures are protected by conservative media. The death of Thatcher, like the death of Reagan, has been surrounded by repeated demands for not speaking ill of the dead. While this is a compelling emotional argument, it was nowhere to been seen when Hugo Chavez passed away about a month ago. The conservative bias in media is rather obvious, but events like this certainly make that bias rather glaring. Few newspapers in North America, save at least the Toronto Star, have really published much detailing the darker chapters of Thatcherism.
Another lens I'm keen to discuss is the idea of Thatcher as a female politician is held up as an icon or role model. The best representation of this is the film The Iron Lady. It's seemingly unfeminist to say that Thatcher was a bad Prime Minister (according to more mainstream discourses) because she was the first example of a woman directing foreign and domestic policy as head of government. From my perspective, the idea that she "saved" England has a lot to do with her being perceived as a man. Much in the way that Churchill stared down Hitler, Thatcher had enemies and took them on in an open fashion. She vilified unions in coal mining and what she broadly termed terrorism. Taking defiant positions here, almost in a military style, made her a valuable leader. It also made her popular and gave her the critical support to introduce her reply. In response to labour's demands for fair wages and safe working conditions, she formulated crushing reforms that deregulated the economy further and produced catastrophic results for the lower class. In response to terrorism, she vehemently opposed the notion of violence as a tool of liberation and she supported the Apartheid movement in South Africa. Her maleness comes across best, perhaps, in the fact that she used the 1982 Falklands War as a base for building popular support, drumming up nationalism and militarism. She acted as chief of the navy, the true Iron Lady, using force and coercion to put "rebels" in their place.
Lastly, an important perspective is the notion that "strong" leaders are okay when in a "democratic" context, though not elsewhere. In our society it's quite common to say that leaders like Stalin and Mao were terrible autocrats who, through control of the state, changed policies and wrought havoc on their society. These enemies are easily defined to Westerners because the leaders were never democratically chosen and thus should not have had any legitimacy. However, this becomes much murkier when we talk about other leaders who have, at least at one point, been elected. Chavez, for example, was elected, and so was Hitler. While these examples may be extreme, it is valuable to point out that democracy and authoritarianism are not, in the slightest, mutually exclusive.
I'll close by mentioning the controversy over people wanting to dance on Thatcher's grave. This has caused a sensation in Britain and elsewhere, with many commenting about the morality of such a thing. Most of the comments tended to come from young people who were neither alive in the
1970s nor have any sophisticated knowledge of British economic and
social historical narratives. Consider the following: what will happen when Harper passes away? My inkling is that Harper has been as divisive in Canadian politics as Thatcher was for Britain, and perhaps this can lend a helpful vantage point.