Feature

U.K.: A nation divided over Margaret Thatcher

The former prime minister was and remains the most divisive political figure in modern British history.

We love her and loathe her in equal measure, said Ben MacIntyre in The Times. Margaret Thatcher was and remains the most divisive political figure in modern British history. During her 11 years in office—longer than any prime minister since 1827—“she inspired blind hatred, swooning worship, anger, and adoration. But never indifference.” That is largely a result of her adversarial, tribal nature. In her eyes, “you were either with her, and right, or you were against her, and therefore wrong.” To her supporters, she was the restorer of British greatness. She beat back the Argentine invaders in the Falklands War, reigniting British patriotism, then freed the economy by smashing the unions back home. To her detractors, her elevation of the free market and individual freedom destroyed British society—“there being, she famously insisted, no such thing.” Her tenure, from 1979 to 1990, was marked by riots and unrest. And upon news of her death, mobs of cheering leftists celebrated in the streets, some even carrying banners saying, “The bitch is dead.” 

Such vitriol is repulsive, said Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail. Many of the haters are just snobs. The “boarding-school products of the Labor Left” are still appalled that a grocer’s daughter dared to lead the nation and challenged us to embrace national pride. Britain’s first female prime minister was “an icon of aspiration, social mobility, and self-improvement.” Those who would belittle her are mere “pygmies, squabbling in her shadow.” Just such petty figures in her own party brought an end to her tenure, said Robin Harris, also in the Daily Mail. She was such a huge personality, with her “magnetic self-belief and blazing integrity,” that jealous Tory ministers booted her out. 

Spare us the hagiography, said the Daily Mirror in an editorial. Margaret Thatcher was brought down by her own cruelty, after she repealed a progressive tax and replaced it with a one-size-fits-all poll tax that penalized the poor. Many of the problems this country now suffers—joblessness, drug abuse, malaise—are a direct result of her heartless policies. She destroyed entire coal-mining villages. Her refusal to build more public housing after privatizing the existing stock has left us with an underclass crammed into blighted urban neighborhoods. “Thatcher broke Britain and replaced what had come before with something crueler, nastier.” Her legacy, said The Guardian, is “public division, private selfishness, and a cult of greed.”

The reforms stung, but Britain sorely needed them, said Jeremy Warner in The Daily Telegraph. When she took office, the economy was crippled by inept government controls and wildcat strikes. “Britain was living with almost Soviet levels of consumer deprivation,” and you had to wait months just to get a telephone line installed. Thatcher “broke the destructive postwar link between government and the means of production and drove huge gains in productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness.” In the short term, people lost jobs, but in the long term, the British economy roared back.

For better or for worse, she transformed the country, said Andreas Whittam Smith in The Independent. Our parties still battle over the choices that Thatcher first spelled out: “free enterprise versus state ownership, self-help versus reliance on government.” For decades to come, we’ll still be living “in Thatcher’s Britain.”

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