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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Farewell, Iron Lady

The cortege passes along Fleet Street towards St. Paul's Cathedral for the funeral of former
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (inset). (Composite Photo)

Earlier today, thousands of Margaret Thatcher's relatives, friends and countrymen(and women) gathered at St. Paul's Cathedral in London for the former prime minister's funeral. While much of the media coverage and commentary has focused on ancillary matters--yes, her nineteen-year-old granddaughter was beautiful and eloquent, and yes, President Obama did not attend, nor did he send Vice-President Biden (thank God) or another cabinet-level member of his administration--I thought it would be appropriate to pay tribute to the woman herself. As much has been said about the Iron Lady, one can't overdo honoring the life and legacy of a figure as great as the Rt Hon. Baroness Thatcher.

First, a brief primer: Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Hilda Roberts on 13 October 1925 in Lincolnshire. She was elected to Parliament in 1959 and became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979. Now for the interesting stuff. 
Thatcher's route to Parliament was not only unusual but extraordinary. She earned a degree in chemistry from Oxford and worked as a research scientist--you may have heard about her role in the creation of soft-serve ice cream--before marrying, studying law and eventually becoming a barrister. She made three unsuccessful runs for Parliament before being elected from Finchley (a now-abolished constituency in what was then the County of Middlesex), which she represented until her retirement in 1992.
Years ago I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Jill Knight, Baroness of Collingtree, who served with Thatcher in the House of Commons for 30 years. She recalled how, during the '70s, there was a great schism between Mrs. Thatcher and Ted Heath, whom she succeeded as leader of the Conservative Party. While Heath was Prime Minister, from 1970 to '74, Thatcher served as Secretary of State for Education & Science. The two did not see eye-to-eye on many issues, and a rift soon developed between them (not unlike the erstwhile division across the pond between the Goldwater conservatives and Rockefeller Republicans in the GOP). After being swept out of power in the 1974 elections, the Conservatives replaced Heath with the younger, more libertarian-minded Thatcher.
To understand the significance of Thatcher becoming leader of the Conservative Party, you need to be familiar with British postwar political history. (No, don't stop reading!) While World War II invigorated a depressed American economy and arguably left the United States as the world's lone superpower, it devastated Great Britain.  This loss of capital was compounded by a sharp decline in the birth rate caused by the deaths of many British men during World War I. Out of this emerged a "collectivist consensus" that transcended political parties: a generous, broad-based welfare state was needed to alleviate the widespread hardship caused by the War and support those who (suuposedly) had no other means of support. Often referred to as "Butskellism" (after Lord Butler, a Conservative who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1951 to 1955, and MP Hugh Gaitskell, Leader of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1963), this consensus gave rise to policies that effectively transformed the U.K. into a social democracy and that were perpetuated by seven prime ministers, including Heath, until by the late 1970s the stagnant British economy was plagued by excessive taxation, routine strikes, high inflation, mounting deficits and a government that seemed both hyperactive and incompetent.
So when the Conservatives replaced Sir Edward with a true conservative who appropriately denounced many of these policies as socialism akin to the policies imposed on many eastern European peoples. After regaining power in 1979, the Conservatives, led by Thatcher, set about scaling back the welfare state, reducing taxes, deregulating key industries, privatizing government entities and limiting the power of trade unions. Though much of the rabble who had become accustomed to suckling at the government teat pitched many a fit, a majority of the electorate supported Thatcher's agenda and kept her in power for nearly twelve consecutive years, the longest uninterrupted prime ministry since the Earl of Liverpool.
All good things must come to an end, though, and in 1990, facing a growing rebellion from within her own party, the Iron Lady resigned. Of all the explanations floated for her sudden decline in popularity and eventual downfall, one particular policy deserves special attention. Thatcher had long advocated replacing the rates system (under which local government services were funded by ad valorem taxes) with a poll tax. In 1987, she got her wish, and the rates were replaced with the Community Charge, which assessed a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult. The policy was very unpopular, particularly with large families, and Thatcher's successor, John Major, made good on his promise to abolish it shortly after taking office as prime minister.
Thankfully for the U.K., much of her legacy was more durable, and the country has remained an economic power on the world stage to this day. Not all Britons are grateful for the many ways in which she saved them from another devastating (and likely irreversible) collapse. For all the talk about the stereotypical "ugly American", our brothers and sisters in Mother England have shown over the past week that Respect for the recently departed is not a custom they wish to observe. Labour MP John Healey, the Henry Waxman of South Yorkshire, actually called Thatcher's legacy "too bitter to warrant this claim to national mourning."
"Churchill . . . unified the country, while Margaret Thatcher divided it," he told the Guardian.
One of Healey's colleagues, Respect MP George Galloway, similarly praised one of the country's most revered leaders while maligning Thatcher.
"We'd be conducting this conversation in German if it was not for Mr. Churchill," he spewed on BBC2's Daily Politics. "He saved the very existence of this country, while Mrs. Thatcher did her best to destroy what was good about this country and did destroy more than a third of our manufacturing capacity, reducing us to the state we're in now." 

Of course, the Baroness Thatcher was one of those leaders so confident in her principles that she was never phased or deterred by the petulant (and, in Mr. Galloway's case, historically inaccurate) jeers of her detractors. In fact, she relished confronting them; just watch some old clips of her taking questions (a term that apparently has quite a broad definition when it comes to the British Parliamentary tradition of the Prime Minister's "Question Time") from the opposition during her tenure as Prime Minister.
She confronted challenges, both at home and from abroad, with a courage and boldness unlike any British PM since Churchill. To be sure, Tony Blair displayed a confidence in his own policy agenda and was steadfast in his support for the War on Terror, including Operation Iraqi Freedom, amid vocal opposition from the British people, but his affable demeanor and disarming mien didn't convey quite the same resolve (or instill fear in his enemies) like the Iron Lady's steely disposition and forthright rhetoric. ("You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.") While a lot of us had high hopes for David Cameron, he has yet to emulate the qualities that made Margaret Thatcher such an effective and successful leader.

Not all hope is lost, though, and as the United Kingdom--and the party of Disraeli and Churchill--bids farewell to another of its finest leaders, let us not just remember her many achievements but also take note of her philosophy and contemplate how it might be applied to solve our present-day problems.