How U.S. conservatives and liberals are spinning Margaret Thatcher's death

Your feelings about the Iron Lady speak volumes about your political views

A tale of two Thatchers: The Prime Minister poses with her wax self in 1980.
(Image credit: Central Press/Getty Images)

It turns out that Margaret Thatcher is as divisive in death as she was in life. News of the former British prime minister's death has prompted tributes from around the world, as well as criticisms of a formidable legacy that includes introducing free-market reforms to Britain, taking a tough line against the Soviet Union and communism in general, and going to war to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

American commentators were quick to define her legacy in ideological terms, a reflection of her enduring impact — along with that of her close ally, Ronald Reagan — on Western politics. Indeed, the response to her death only underscores how intensely the conservative revolution of the early 1980s continues to be debated, on issues ranging from health care to taxes.

Conservatives highlighted Thatcher's commitment to weakening Britain's trade unions and privatizing government-controlled industries, an effort that resulted in a broad economic revival after years of inflation and crippling union strikes. Thatcher "helped bury socialism as a doctrine of governance," writes George Will at The Washington Post:

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As stable societies mature, they resemble long-simmering stews — viscous and lumpy with organizations resistant to change and hence inimical to dynamism. Her program was sound money, laissez faire, social fluidity, and upward mobility through self-reliance and other "vigorous virtues." She is the only prime minister whose name came to denote a doctrine — Thatcherism. ("Churchillian" denotes not a political philosophy but a leadership style.) When she left office in 1990, the trade unions had been tamed by democratizing them, the political argument was about how to achieve economic growth rather than redistribute wealth, and individualism and nationalism were revitalized. [The Washington Post]

Conservatives also hailed Thatcher's strong anti-communist position, saying it showed the benefits of an aggressive, morally righteous foreign policy. Thatcher, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II "won the Cold War, and, it isn't too much to say, saved the West," writes William Kristol at The Weekly Standard:

They knew what they believed but also knew they had to justify their beliefs, and that one could adjust prudently to circumstances without yielding on principle. They stood firm when in power, and they took risks to get there, challenging the conventional wisdom and the respective establishments of their nations or institutions. [The Weekly Standard]

Liberals, on the other hand, criticized Thatcher's single-minded focus on communism, saying it resulted in an inflexible foreign policy that partnered the West with dubious bedfellows. As David Corn at Mother Jones writes:

She joined with Reagan in support of torturers and human-rights abusers around the globe, as long as these folks were opposed to the Soviets. She called Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" and would not join the worldwide crusade against the racist apartheid regime of South Africa. (In 2006, Conservative Party leader David Cameron felt obliged to disown Thatcher's and his party's previous opposition to Mandela and his African National Congress.) She supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Her war in the Falklands struck many as an orchestrated stunt, not an act of necessity — though some have seen that military action as a noble blow against Argentina's fascist junta (which the Reagan administration was supporting). [Mother Jones]

Liberals also used Thatcher's legacy as a foil to show how far right American conservatives have allegedly drifted. "While Thatcher stands as a role model for modern conservatism here in the United States, her policies likely wouldn't hold up under the scrutiny of a modern-day GOP," says Annie-Rose Strasser at Think Progress, noting Thatcher's support for socialized medicine, her comfort with raising taxes, her belief in climate change, and her enactment of tough gun laws.

And liberals charged that Thatcher's economic reforms were not without their destructive effects. Her war against the unions led to the gutting of some working-class communities, while deregulation paved the way for the financial troubles of later years. According to Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post:

Thatcher was also largely responsible for the City of London becoming the financial center of Europe. In 1986, she executed what became known as the "big bang," which deregulated large swathes of the financial industry. That resulted in tremendous growth, especially among private equity firms and hedge funds which rely on heavily leveraged investments. Of course, the abolition of regulations limited how much firms could borrow, meaning that when lots of debt goes bad, that effect spreads easily from institution to institutions. So Thatcher’s deregulations arguably contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, both in their own right and by influencing U.S. policymakers. [The Washington Post]

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