Last week marked the passing of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at age 87. “The Iron Lady,” as she came to be dubbed by the Soviet press, was known for her fervent advocacy of pro-business, anti-labor economic policies at home and for her staunchly anti-communist foreign policy positions abroad. In the United States, where British officials tend to be judged based solely on their degree of affinity with U.S. leaders, Margaret Thatcher was an uncontroversial, revered figure praised for her apparently close, personal relationship with her American counterpart, Ronald Reagan. In the UK, however, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy remains as controversial as ever and many of her most fervent admirers there have stated that she most likely would be more than happy about that fact.
Margaret Thatcher was the first and only woman ever to have held the office of UK Prime Minister and was the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She came to power at a point in time where Great Britain was suffering from high inflation and high unemployment. Labor unions had engaged in a series of crippling strikes seeking better pay for industrial workers. Highly influenced by the thinking of economists like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, Thatcher and her Conservative party lowered taxes and privatized many state-owned industries. She raised interest rates to combat rising inflation and, most controversially, actively set out to undermine the power of British labor unions. Her most notorious confrontation with the coal miners union, highlighted by the 1984 strike, which led to the eventual closing of roughly 150 mines, resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs and left many communities economically devastated. The use of police action to quell labor demonstrations and popular unrest were criticized as tactically heavy-handed and such actions left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Brits. Large-scale unemployment and a homelessness epidemic also came to characterize the series of neoliberal economic policies which came to be known as “Thatcherism.” It took several years for Thatcher’s reforms to bear fruit but by that time, the divisions regarding her policies were already firmly entrenched in British society.
Thatcher’s foreign policy initiatives were, by comparison, much less controversial. She took a fairly hard-line stance towards the IRA, which was likely one of many reasons she became a target for IRA assassins in 1984. An IRA bomb attack on the hotel she was staying in prior to the Conservative party conference in October of that year left five people dead. Thatcher’s resolute determination to deliver her speech at the conference the next day earned her admiration across the political spectrum.
Like Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was staunchly anti-Communist. She firmly supported U.S. and NATO efforts to station cruise missiles in the UK and throughout Western Europe, an action which led to a series of mass peace protests against the decision. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher was unhesitant in deciding to go to war to reclaim the islands—a decision which proved popular with most Brits at the time. However, despite her hawkish reputation, Thatcher is widely credited for helping to convince Ronald Reagan that the new, reformist Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, was someone with whom the West could do business. Perhaps her most controversial foreign policy positions included her opposition to German reunification after the fall of the Soviet Union and her opposition to the sanctions regime imposed on the Apartheid government in South Africa.
Invariably, one’s fondness for or resentment towards Margaret Thatcher is reflective of one’s particular political views. What is refreshing about British attitudes towards their leaders, past and present, is that there seems to be much of less of an air of romanticism and uncritical fawning admiration towards them as is so often the case here in the U.S. Whereas in the U.S., any public criticism of the late Ronald Reagan would be viewed from being unkind to a form of secular heresy against American democracy (as evidenced by the fawning admiration from even Democrats like current president Barack Obama), there seems to be a much more “realistic” assessment of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in the UK. It is certainly hard to imagine anything occurring in the U.S. like the sort of public celebrations which have erupted in the wake of Thatcher’s death. While such celebrations may rightfully be viewed as distasteful, they do reflect a sense of tolerance among the British public to dissenting views on authority, which is a healthy sign of any liberal democracy. And if some of her closest admirers are correct, Thatcher herself might have enjoyed the fact that she generated such enmity among her political opponents.