Margaret Thatcher: A conflicted legacy
Together with Reagan, the British leader—who died this week at age 87—engineered the conservative revolution of the 1980s.
“It is a common conceit of age to imagine that giants roamed the earth in one’s youth,” said Max Boot in The Philadelphia Inquirer. But I still hold that belief, because my formative years occurred while Ronald Reagan was president and Margaret Thatcher prime minister. Together with Reagan, the British leader—who died this week at age 87—engineered the conservative revolution of the 1980s, and showed the world “what inspired leadership could achieve.” When she rose to power in 1979, the U.K. was in the midst of its “Winter of Discontent,” crippled by strikes and crumbling nationalized industries. The U.S., too, was mired in recession. In both countries, national confidence was waning. “Reagan and Thatcher would have none of it.” The two leaders forged an alliance with a simple goal: “saving the West,” said Peter Robinson in The Wall Street Journal. They stood united as they pushed through free-market reforms, broke the stranglehold of unions, and pared back the state. “When Margaret walked into the room,” recalled Reagan’s former counselor Edwin Meese III, “the president lit up.”
The effects of that friendship were felt the world over, said Kenneth Walsh in USNews.com. Thatcher and Reagan shared a hatred of communism, and “the daring idea that the West should actually win the Cold War.” Thatcher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her “dear Ronnie” as he pumped up U.S. military spending in a successful effort to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Though the Iron Lady had no interest in the rhetorical crusade for women’s rights, said Lionel Shriver in Slate.com, she “was a real feminist,’’ and showed through actions that women could be the equal of any man. Tough, decisive, and unafraid of conflict, Thatcher “defied gender stereotypes.” Yet she never gave up her handbag or bouffant hairdo.
But the Iron Lady wasn’t always on the right side of history, said Ishaan Tharoor in Time.com. Her “Cold War–era paranoia” led her to oppose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid state, since she viewed it as an ally in the struggle against communism. She once called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist.” She also defended Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet because Pinochet—when he wasn’t torturing and killing his political opponents—sided with Britain in its 1982 Falklands War with Argentina. Then there’s the damage Thatcher caused at home, said Alex Pareene in Salon.com. Unemployment and poverty soared in the U.K. after she shuttered state-owned industries and smashed unions, throwing hundreds of thousands of miners and manufacturing workers out of their jobs. Many never worked again. Her deregulation of the financial industry, meanwhile, lit a long fuse that led directly to the 2008 global banking crisis and recession. The world is better off without Thatcher, “and it would have been much better off had she never existed at all.”
What Thatcher did was harsh, but necessary, said Megan McArdle in TheDailyBeast.com. Britain was in steep decline when she took power, and she began the process of modernizing its economy. But in breaking the unions and eliminating the government jobs that once sustained the working and middle classes, Thatcher and Reagan left millions of people poorer and/or unemployed. They thought the market forces they unleashed would create new jobs to fill the void. But it didn’t happen. “As in America, post-1970s Britain has been a very good place for educated elites, and yet not very good for the post-industrial working class.” Until that yawning inequality gap begins to close, “Thatcher’s legacy will remain incomplete, and those who have to live in it will remain conflicted.”