Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy

The question of Margaret Thatcher’s passing is less relevant than the ideas she left behind.


Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Credit: Wikipedia

Not many contemporaries can claim columns of vitriolic despair against their name in collections of quotes.

In Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Insulting Quotations, Margaret Thatcher figures prominently. From 1979, when the food critic Clement Freud called her Attila the Hen, to Denis Healey’s “La Pasionara of middle-class privilege,” you knew that a force of uncommon presence had descended on the scene of British politics. More to the point, it was a force that never left.

Much of this has been lost in the immediate reaction to Thatcher’s death from politicians, British or otherwise. In a concern for propriety, Thatcher’s greatness has been acknowledged. US President Barack Obama stuck to a diplomatic formula: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.”

No one, from the Tories to the far left of the labour movement quite knew how to take her when Thatcher won the leadership of the opposition in 1975. She was the “immaculate misconception,” to borrow a term from Norman St John-Stevas. Such observations were more often than not spiced by a touch of misogyny (“a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers,” suggested the Australian critic and television host Clive James), and a feeling that she was an inadequate representation of conservatism. No one, for a time, seemed satisfied.

There were those who sensed that something different was open to happen in British politics. Barbara Castle got a whiff of it. “She has lent herself with grade and charm to every piece of photographer’s gimmickry, but don’t we all when the prize is big enough?  She is in love; in love with power, success with herself… If we have to have Tories, good luck to her.”

The Tories have taken the line that Thatcher saved Britain. This is the traditional narrative of rescue that those of the Right have fallen in with. Britannia was doomed, seemingly in irresistible decline in the 1970s, the sick man of Europe. A terminal patient, it was merely a case of who would turn off the life support machine. For former Conservative MP and Thatcher minister David Mellor, Thatcher’s challenges were enormous, shaped by the loss of empire and a failure to find a role.

The other side of it is unforgiving. Thatcher embraced the market as an unholy force for change. She was the “milk snatcher” who specialized in state sanctioned privation. To former Labour MP Paul Boateng, “She seemed as indifferent to the plight of victims of the market forces she unleashed as she was to the urgency of the struggle against apartheid.”  Unions, deemed corrupt and dinosaur-like in their presence on the industrial relations scene, were confronted and crushed. The coal mines, deemed unproductive anachronisms, were closed down, thrilling environmentalists but angering blue-collar Britain.

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Labour, both in terms of party, and in terms of constituency, was defanged, leaving the way open for something that had been alien to Britain prior to Thatcher – a service sector humming to the tunes of finance. The City types, a new Britain wedded to finance, being more Wall Street than Wall Street, came into being. “Instead of a brain drain,” suggested Mellor, “we got an influx of talent and money, drawn by our low-tax, high enterprise economy.” Keynesianism was being given a good thrashing, while the monetarists and followers of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek took center stage.

War was also entertained, taking the form of patriotic escapism against Argentina in the Falklands conflict of 1982

Her hard-line taken against the Soviet Union with her ally President Ronald Reagan was deemed instrumental in bringing the Cold War to an early conclusion. When the power of Brussels burgeoned and encroached, she fumed and raged, as she did in the famous Bruges speech of 1988. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state of Britain, only to see them re-imposed at the European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” It is easy to forget that she had been a supporter of the UK remaining in the European Community in 1975.

For all that, it is her influence that on British politics that has been total. The triumph of New Labour in 1997 was a vicarious victory for Thatcher’s politics. “New” Labour was Tony Blair’s sincerest effort of flattery, a Tory Plan B that succeeded with stunning effect. It placed the market at the center of decision making and the allocation of resources, while offering the pretense of compassion; it continued the repudiation of the welfare model that had made Britain after World War II a star of social engineering.

For such reasons, the question of Thatcher’s passing is less relevant than the ideas she left behind. She inspires revulsion and hagiographic reflection, which is explained by the campaign against a state funeral in her honor. Thatcher herself expressed dislike at the idea of having her body lie in state.

In turn, she has every reason to be flattered by the efforts of celebration that broke out immediately after her death. To reduce opponents to apoplectic hatred might be considered a gift of sorts. Individuals like former Tory MP Louise Mench have no reason to be concerned by those “Pygmies of the left” who might embarrass themselves with unforgiving commentary. Their greatest embarrassment was placing Thatcherism in the clothes of the labour movement. Surely no triumph could have been greater than that?

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.comRead other articles by Binoy.