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I was initially not going to write anything about her passing but seeing that my FB timeline is inundated with posts on her—90% of it vitriol and hate from my numerous gauchiste FB friends—I suppose I should add my 2¢ as well (and no more than that). I was not a Thatcherite, loin s’en faut, disliking her out of gauchiste ideological reflex. But I couldn’t get too worked up over her, as I’m not a Brit, spent all of two weeks in England during her years in power, and was too consumed by my detestation of the Reagan administration to get overly emotional on what was happening across the pond. And I did support her sending the Royal Navy to the Falklands in ’82 (and made no secret of it). Rising to the top of a male-dominated political world when she did and imposing her authority also aroused a certain admiration. I liked Shirley Williams but don’t know if she would have had a chance at the time, even if the UK had had a different electoral system. In this respect, Thatcher was blessed by the first-past-the-post system—the Tories did not receive more than 43% of the vote in any of the elections she won—, the divided opposition, and lack of checks-and-balances in the British system, meaning she had free rein to impose her legislation. And she was especially blessed by the calamitous state of the Trotskyist-infiltrated Labour party and the trade unions, and notably Arthur Scargill’s mine workers. Between Thatcher and Scargill, one had little choice but to tilt toward the former. À propos, Libération has an interview with left-wing French economist Denis Clerc, who, in an otherwise negative assessment of Thatcher’s record, said that Thatcher’s victory in the miners conflict was necessary, as British unions had become a conservative force clinging to an economic model that Britain could no longer sustain.
Mrs. Thatcher may have been hated by British (and US) leftists but French Socialists—who were in power during most of the time she was—had a certain admiration for her (as a leader and interlocutor, if not politically). And François Mitterrand definitely did (saying that she had the eyes of Stalin and the smile of Marilyn Monroe). As for Thatcher’s economic policies, the main thing she did was privatize. So did the French right during the first cohabitation (1986-88). And the Socialists did even more from 1997 onward. But she didn’t privatize the NHS, and the disastrous privatization of British Rail was the doing of John Major. Thatcher also kept the Bank of England under political control. As for her Euroscepticism and opposition to EMU, she had good company in France (Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Charles Pasqua, Philippe Séguin…). On Thatcher’s privatizations, here’s a 1994 academic article by political scientist (and personal friend) Stathis Kalyvas, “Hegemony Breakdown: The Collapse of Nationalization in Britain and France.” And here’s a piece by historian Harold James on “Margaret Thatcher’s Lessons for Europe.” I’ll link to more good stuff I come across.
One thing. All sorts of lefties on FB are asserting that Thatcher called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” in the 1980s. I’ve been trying to find a precise quote and but haven’t been able to, which leads me to think that maybe she never said such a thing about Mandela (as opposed to the ANC, which she did label “terrorist” in the ’80s). She did oppose imposing sanctions on South Africa, which is known, but it seems that she lobbied the apartheid regime to release Mandela. If anyone has specific information on this, do let me know.
It’s hard to make a really good biopic. Some succeed, more don’t. This one did not, and despite Meryl Streep’s stellar performance (her Oscar was well-deserved). Too much on Mrs. Thatcher’s descent into Alzheimer’s, not enough on her years in power. The latter was given short shrift in the pic, which I could not understand. Whatever one thinks of Thatcher—and few are neutral on her, politically or on her persona—she was one of the major political figures in the Western world of the past half century. She deserved a better cinematic treatment than this.
French reviews weren’t too positive either. Don’t know how the pic was received in Britain, though leftists—critics and audiences alike—no doubt trashed it.
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan, who was a teenage Thatcherite, assesses her legacy here (he calls her a “liberator”).
2nd UPDATE: Paul Krugman asks—with graphs and data—”Did Thatcher turn Britain around?” Answer: insofar as she did, it didn’t happen while she was in office. Bruce Bartlett, in discussing “The legend of Margaret Thatcher,” reminds us that taxes as a share of GDP sharply increased under Thatcher, spending was not reduced, and she left office with the welfare state intact. And like all Brits, she strongly supported the National Health Service. US Republicans take note. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy reminisces on “Maggie and me: how Thatcher changed Britain.” Martin Wolf has a column in the FT on “Thatcher: the great reformer,” in which he observes, entre autres, that Thatcher was a pragmatic politician who showed little interest in embarking on politically suicidal attempts to dismantle the welfare state, and certainly not the NHS, and that public spending never fell below 39% of GDP under her watch. Again, US Republicans take note.
3rd UPDATE: The Guardian has published an epitaph for Mrs. Thatcher written by Hugo Young, a Thatcher biographer (not sympathetic) and longtime Guardian political columnist, days before he died in 2003, “Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared.” Among other things, he had this to say
Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn’t care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.
on the subject of Europe, Thatcher became a contradictory figure. She led Britain further into Europe, while talking us further out. Endeavouring to persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection must take a high place in any catalogue of anti-statesmanship. This, too, we still live with.
The Washington Post has republished on its website a piece dated December 22 2011 by Thatcher biographer Claire Berlinski (sympathetic), “Five myths about Margaret Thatcher,” in which she says this about Mrs. Thatcher’s European convictions
Yes, she is known as the great Euroskeptic. But the peculiar truth is that for most of her career, she was a passionate advocate of European unification. In 1975, she led the Tory faction of the “Vote Yes” campaign in referendum to determine whether Britain should stay in the Common Market, the precursor to the modern European Union. The Single European Act of 1986, which revised the Treaty of Rome to expand the power of the European Economic Community, as the Common Market was then known, was her initiative.
On the subject of Thatcher and Europe, a friend who worked with the EC/EU for much of his career wrote to me in an email today (April 9) that
One aspect that seems to be missed is the great irony of her career. She was a main driver of the expansion if the EU and turned it into a thoroughly “British” affair (by which I mean driven by free market ideology. She pushed the Single European Act which has done for Europe what the Interstate commerce act did for the US. The SEA created the internal market and caused the number of regulations (loose use of the word) to increase by orders of magnitude.
My friend also added this Anglo-French pun, that apparently never caught on: Thatch = chaume. Thatcher = chaumeur = chômeur. 😀
Re Hugo Young above, the LRB has a lengthy 1989 review by R.W. Johnson of Young’s biography of Thatcher. Also on the LRB website is this 1994 piece by Christopher Hitchens in which he describes being spanked (literally) by Mrs. T.
4th UPDATE: Political scientist Stephen Benedict Dyson has interesting essay, “Margaret Thatcher, her personality and politics,” on the academic website The Monkey Cage. And Anthony Barnett of OpenDemocracy has a piece on “Thatcher and the words no one mentions: North Sea Oil.”
5th UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a blog post on Thatcher’s penchant for regressive taxation, in which he informs us who is “Margaret Thatcher’s true heir“: Bobby Jindal. John Palmer, think tank wonk and former Guardian editor, informs us in the fine website Social Europe Journal that “Margaret Thatcher’s social and economic ‘revolution’ has proved a failure.” Nicolas Gros-Verheyde on the Bruxelles2 blog has a good post on Thatcher’s European convictions. And on NRO, a website I look at as little as possible, Claire Berlinski (supra) is interviewed on why “Thatcher matters.” Claire may be a Thatcherite but is no hack. Her views are nuanced and complex, even if I’m not on the same political page as she. At some point I’ll read her biography of Mrs. T.
6th UPDATE: The leftist Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has a very good, balanced assessment, “Farewell Mrs Thatcher: In spite of everything, you are being missed already.” In TNR, Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes on “The importance of being prickly: How Margaret Thatcher ruled,” in which he discusses, entre autres, the dim view Mrs. T had of much of the Reagan administration’s foreign policy. And Stylist magazine, in assessing the legacy of the Iron Lady, asks “Was Thatcher a feminist?”
7th UPDATE: Theodore Dalrymple of the conservative Manhattan Institute has an interesting assessment of Mrs. T’s legacy on the Liberty Law Blog, in which he asks “What hath Thatcher wrought?” For his part, Ali Gharib on the Open Zion blog asks “What kind of friend to Israel was Thatcher?” (Answer: she was a friend but not uncritically). Historian David Cannadine, writing in the NYT, poses his question, “How should we rank Margaret Thatcher?” And IFRI’s Politique Étrangère blog reprints a 1989 portrait (en français) of la Dame de fer—which is not too tender—by the late defense analyst and Tory party member, Hugh Hanning.
What we need today, in this situation, is a Thatcher of the left: a leader who would repeat Thatcher’s gesture in the opposite direction, transforming the entire field of presuppositions shared by today’s political elite of all main orientations.
To which a lefty friend—who may or may not have been joking—responded: yes, Chairman Mao! Well, if that’s the leftist answer to Mrs. T, I’ll take Mrs. T any old day…
9th UPDATE: I had a lively exchange on FB over this post with a leftist FB friend named Joel, who expressed indignation at what he saw as my limp-wristed critique—if not backhanded defense—of Margaret Thatcher. Here is my portion of the exchange (Joel has deleted his, though one may divine its tenor from my remarks)
Joel, thanks for your comments. I was not focused on ridiculing knee-jerk leftists – I think you’re overly sensitive here – even though knee-jerk leftists do sometimes merit ridicule. On what happened to the British economy under Thatcher, I am familiar with the story and data, but given the calamitous state of that economy when she came to power, I wonder how different it would have been (in terms of unemployment and inflation) had Labour or the Tory wets been at the helm in the 1980s. As for the privatization of enterprises in the competitive, productive sector of the economy, this was going to happen sooner or later anyway, as it did in France (and on this specific issue, I’m a neoliberal). On trade unions, I’m totally for them, except when they become rent-seeking, conservative, and retrograde, which was indeed the case for at least some in the TUC. In very specific cases, unions sometimes do deserve to be smashed (as I’ve argued on my blog in re to a couple of cases in France). And in the conflict between Thatcher and the Stalin-praising Scargill, I will reiterate here my tilt toward the former, no apologies. Thatcher’s economic legacy is the only question that interests me – I couldn’t care less if she embraced Pinochet or Zia ul-Haq – and on this, I follow the lead of economists like Krugman. The verdict: mixed, with a lot of negative points but not totally so.
I’m struck by the torrent of hatred toward Mrs. T. on FB, and almost all from non-Brits at that. It’s as virulent as the Sarkozy hatred on the left in France. Now, I finally couldn’t stand Sarko myself and desperately wanted him to lose the last election, but found the hatred toward him – including in my immediate entourage – unhinged and bordering on the irrational. It seems to be likewise with Thatcher, and with much of it fueled by her public persona more than her policies (and over twenty years after she left the scene; personally speaking, I just can’t continue to despise politicians once they’re gone from power for good, particularly if they left in defeat; though I may make an exception here for Silvio Berlusconi). She personally got under the skin of a lot of people. But insofar as the hatred is due to her policies, it would be useful for lefties to look in the mirror and do a little auto-critiquing themselves, as the Labour party was in pretty bad shape in the late 70s-80s (and by lurching left in the 1983 elections, enabled Thatcher to win easy reelection). The fact is, the Labour party – and particularly its Tony Benn wing – was not credible in the early 80s and had no chance of rallying anything approaching an electoral majority (if the UK had had PR and necessitating coalition govts, the Alliance would have no doubt joined with the Tories rather than Labour in ’83)…
Following Joel’s rejoinder (deleted), I riposted
Joel, the last thing I’m going to do is go to bat for Thatcher’s policies. Seriously. But your rage against the course of history over the past few decades – to which I am not unsympathetic – strikes me as manichean and devoid of any autocritique of the left (Labour party and the unions) and its role in facilitating Thatcher’s rise to power. In point of fact, many features of the postwar UK (and US) economic model had become unsustainable by the late 1970s – politically speaking at least – and had to be reinvented. Listen, those coal mines were not going to be kept open and industry in the competitive sector of the economy was not going to remain under state control. The only alternative I can glean from your denunciation is a Soviet-style command economy behind high protectionist barriers. But this model failed miserably everywhere it was implemented. And there was no electoral majority for it, and certainly not in the 1970s and ’80s (let alone today). There is no getting around this fact.
Joel may have had a response here but I left it at that.
10th UPDATE: Martin Sieff, who belongs to an outfit called the Globalist Research Center, says that “Thatcher lives! In Moscow.” Interesting take. (April 19)
11th UPDATE: The New York Times has an article on newly declassified British “[d]ocuments show[ing] Thatcher-Reagan rift over U.S. decision to invade Grenada.” (August 1)
12th UPDATE: LSE emeritus prof John Gray has an essay in TNR on “Margaret Thatcher’s unintended legacies.” The lede: “She wanted a conservative, middle-class England. She delivered anything but.” (August 23)
13th UPDATE: The Economist has a review of a new book by Robin Renwick, a former British diplomat and ambassador to South Africa (1987-91), The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution, in which he reveals the behind-the-scenes role played by Margaret Thatcher in coaxing the South African government to free Nelson Mandela and nudging the two sides into the negotiations that led to the end of the Apartheid regime. Quoting the review
After meeting Thatcher in Downing Street months after his release, Mandela declared, “She is an enemy of apartheid.” He later freely admitted that his country had “much to be thankful to her for”.
Interesting. Read the review here. (March 14, 2015)