It may be difficult for many Americans to truly grasp the complex, alienating legacy of Margaret Thatcher. No recent political figure here in the U.S. was so equally loved and hated at the end of their lifetimes. And once the afterlife comes, American politicians tend to get a pass. Ronald Reagan became universally sainted by conservatives and grudgingly admired by many liberals after his death; and it's likely conservatives will concede Jimmy Carter's foreign policy victories, such as the Camp David accords, when he passes away, even as they bemoan the years of malaise. Only politicians who leave office in disgrace get butchered in the post-mortem.
This is not the way it works in the U.K., where some members of the Left are already eagerly dancing on Maggie's grave. There is talk on social networks of impromptu street parties to celebrate, ghoulish as that might seem. And no doubt, Thatcher's funeral will be accompanied by protests from the U.K.'s active socialist groups.
Thatcher has never been forgiven for what she did to the Left during the 1980s. She didn't so much break up the industrial labor unions as eviscerate them, gladly shutting down scores of coal mines and steel foundries across the country, and refusing to compromise with striking miners during the year-long industrial action of 1984. Her Conservative Party privatized vast swaths of the state's apparatus, including the gas, water, telecom, and electricity industries, and reduced public funding for education, welfare, and social housing. She was nicknamed "Milk Snatcher" after scrapping free school milk supplies while education secretary in the 1970s, and the name stuck throughout her premiership. It easily fit her reputation among liberals as a callous, cold-hearted villain. To communities riven by unemployment, she must have seemed like one, too.
But it would be altogether wrong to suggest that the only people mourning Thatcher today are Tory plutocrats. Thatcher's decade of supply-side economics made a lot of people rich, and not just the 1 percent. The economy boomed under Thatcherism, sparking a rise in house prices and productivity that served to create a real, wealthy middle class. Had Thatcher not collapsed the Labour Party's traditional structures, there would have been no Tony Blair and no New Labour. Without Thatcherism's program of deregulation and tax reform, the City of London would never have become a titan of the financial world. Her presence on the world's stage symbolized a return of sorts to imperial prowess, even if we no longer truly possessed it. She behaved as if Britain were a superpower long after we demonstrably were not, and that very act of stubborn self-confidence kept us among the world's global hegemons.
My own experience as a child of Thatcher's Britain — I was born in London just months after she was elected, in 1979 — was of a country rapidly changing. In my early youth, ours was an insular country, short of cash and at war with itself. By the time I became an adult, in 1997, the year the Conservative Party finally left office, the country was awash in money and confidence.
Thatcher's decade of power emboldened us, corporatized us, and divided us. She left as many poor and bitter as she did wealthy and self-satisfied, and neither group would forget it. Although she insisted there was "no such thing as society," Thatcher's rule thoroughly dredged the tributaries of Britain's class system. That's why the Iron Lady will be mourned and lauded in equal, competing measures — and why we'll be arguing about her real legacy for decades to come.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why Pakistan won't hunt down the terrorists within its borders
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Sorry, GOP, tax cuts don't pay for themselves
- Pope Francis' American problem
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How academia's liberal bias is killing social science
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- Alien conspiracy theorists think the government is on the verge of spilling big secrets
- How to develop a photographic memory in 4 easy steps
Subscribe to the Week