Margaret Thatcher was never one for bending, which is partly why she arouses such intense feelings from both the left and the right. No other Prime Minister, with the possible exception of Blair, left such a mixed legacy. It is no surprise to me that far too many people have been celebrating her death, accusing her of wrecking Britain, doing harm to Ireland and causing the Falklands War. Such claims are, at best, exaggerated.
When Thatcher came to power, Britain was in serious trouble. The economy was slowly being strangled by socialist policies, the military was in decline and the country was slowly starting to collapse. Thatcher took on the Unions, something that no previous PM had dared to do, and broke their stranglehold over industrial disputes. Unions are, like so many other problems, great ideas that need to be carefully controlled. The Unions that made up a large part of Britain’s industrial workforce in Thatcher’s time had grown out of control.
That is not to say that Thatcher was perfect, or that she was always right. The Poll Tax might have sounded like a great idea on paper, but when applied in real life it was disastrous. Like other politicians, Thatcher had the vices of her virtues; she might have saved the Conservative Party serious trouble if she’d backed down after the plan received such intense opposition. As it was, she did a great deal of harm to Scots-English relationships and made, for the first time, independence seem a viable and desirable goal in Scotland.
Internationally, Thatcher played a vitally important role, although she was not always successful. She opposed German reunification, fearing (correctly) that a reunified Germany would grow to dominate Europe. She pushed Bush not to back down when facing Saddam, although outside observers may question how instrumental Thatcher was in the US decision to fight the Gulf War. It is tempting to wonder if Thatcher remaining in power for another six months would have led to an early end to Saddam’s regime, but we must deal with the world as it is.
The idea of blaming Thatcher for the Falklands War is so utterly absurd that I have difficulty in believing that anyone seriously accepts it. Thatcher did not invite the military, anti-democratic, fascist government of Argentina to invade the islands; to reason that she somehow caused the war is to follow the same line of logic that states that terrorist and bully victims deserve to be picked on and die. Thatcher’s choice was between fighting or surrendering British citizens to the tender mercies of a junta not known for being tender to its own civilians, let alone anyone else. She had little choice – and, in choosing to fight, not only freed the islands, but helped ensure that the junta (which had been lying to its own people while terminally mismanaging the war) collapsed soon afterwards, giving Argentina another chance at freedom and prosperity.
Thatcher was not the driving force behind the war, nor was she a warmonger. Indeed, she had every legitimate right to sink Argentina’s aircraft carrier as well as her heavy cruiser and chose not to do so, hoping to end the war diplomatically. Indeed, this caused her problems at times, particularly when she lied to Parliament about the direction the cruiser was heading when it was sunk. This was not only pointless, but unnecessary; the ship was a legitimate target and Thatcher might have done better if she’d just rammed that point home over and over again.
There is a line from an issue of The Sandman where President Nixon claims that the worst occupant of the Oval Office ever is the incumbent, no matter who he may be. And then, when the next person comes along, everyone will remember the previous incumbent fondly. That is true of Margaret Thatcher’s career as PM. Although often underrated, John Major was never able to match her successes (and had to deal with the fallout from the Poll Tax affair), while Blair was a fop who committed Britain to two vitally important wars and then failed to support the troops or make an actual contribution to success.
Thatcher was in life (and in death too, I suspect) a hugely controversial figure. However, on the whole, I think that Britain has good cause to be grateful to her – and to wish that we had more like her waiting in the wings.