On Wednesday, April 10, two days after the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Judy Garland’s ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ reached number 10 in the UK mid-week music charts, and number 1 on the iTunes download chart. There have been reports of ‘Thatcher is Dead’ parties being thrown all over the country, particularly in Brixton, Liverpool and Glasgow.
Assessing the ethics of celebrating the death of an elderly, ill woman is certainly not my job. Having been born the year following her exit from office, I am too young to have directly felt the power Thatcher wielded over Britain and, indeed, some of the world. As such, my feelings about her will always have to be somewhat measured, somewhat calmer than they might otherwise be. I certainly don’t feel entitled to assume I understand Thatcher entirely as a Prime Minister or a person. But, then again, I’m not sure anyone could make that claim.
As a British student of politics, though, the legacy of such a controversial and powerful Prime Minister is fascinating to consider. Her actions while in power had an incredible impact on the Britain I grew up in, as well as the world we all know today. Attempting to understand the extreme, visceral reactions British people have felt upon hearing of her death this week is, for me, a daunting yet important task.
Perhaps the most striking realization I have had, being in the US on the historic day of her death, is the wildly different reputation she has among American and British people. American opinions of Thatcher, on the whole, have seemed to range from indifference to respect.
Many, quite rightly, associate her with Reagan and his conservative principles, recalling a close if tempestuous relationship built on a mutual love of the free market and ‘freedom.’ President Obama released a statement on Monday claiming: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend.” In researching this article, too, I’ve waded through my fair share of self-righteous Fox News articles reeking of ignorance and band-wagoning—condemning those who have celebrated her death and rather stupidly trying to paint Thatcher as a feminist icon.
Thatcher and the feminist movement shared mutual contempt; she will not be remembered as advocating for women’s rights. She will, though, go down in history because she entirely re-shaped the British economy—and society itself. Winning an impressive three consecutive terms in office between 1979 and 1990, and being our first and only female Prime Minister to date, she will never go down among the ranks of forgettable leaders.
There were problems that needed solving in Britain. The economy was struggling, manufacturing was outdated and the trade unions were unhealthy and over-powerful. The Iron Lady responded to these issues, though, in uncompassionate and mind-bogglingly stubborn ways. Her famous remark, “The Lady’s not for turning,” will forever, I think, commemorate her complete inability or unwillingness to compromise her beliefs — even in the face of soaring unemployment rates, strikes, riots and even party dissenters.
After tearing down these outdated forms of industry and manufacturing, coal mining in particular, many blue-collar workers were left unemployed and unprotected by the trade unions that Thatcher was similarly attacking. Particularly in the north of England and Scotland, where such industries were still particularly prevalent, thousands of families and livelihoods were left in tatters. The remains of these destroyed mining towns can still be seen across Britain today. Many of these communities were then forced to depend on government welfare to get by – exactly the kind of ‘dependency culture’ Thatcher (and Conservatives still today) sought to prevent.
For Thatcherites, Britain should be a meritocratic society of trickle-down economics, where the losers lose and the winners win. If you lost your job in mining, you should work hard and get a better job. Coming from humble beginnings herself, it seems to me that this is the defining issue of Thatcher’s ideological standpoint—she worked herself up from the daughter of a grocer to Prime Minister of the country, and if she could do it, why couldn’t everyone else?
Society is just too complex to reduce down to this. By emphasizing the deregulation and liberalization of the market, Thatcher hoped to create a situation whereby everyone in society is free to succeed if they work hard enough, free from red tape and overbearing bureaucracy. Alas, time and time again this has been shown to be far too simple an answer to poverty and unemployment. Too often, people are bound by difficult circumstances, poverty, poor education, family issues and a myriad of other obstacles. This is life. Succeeding through hard work and determination is fantastic and a mindset that government should certainly promote in all countries. But by teaching society that those who don’t succeed are categorically lazy, Thatcher dragged the country to the right and fostered some of the bigotry that can be seen across Britain today.
How will Thatcher go down in the memories of Brits? Speaking to a range of adults who lived and grew through the Thatcher years has shown that to this day, people’s perspectives and opinions are divided and sometimes fiery.
My own father, for example, was saddened by the news of her death and agreed with the vast majority of Thatcherite policy and ideology—for him, the transformation that Thatcher induced in Britain was a painful yet necessary task. The government could not longer afford to subsidize inefficient state-owned industries, so forcing the British economy to evolve from an economy based on outdated manufacturing to a liberal free market of service and finance was an unavoidable move. Furthermore, her success in the Falklands war and ultimate defeat of strikers and unions made her, for my father, a great Prime Minister.
For my boyfriend’s parents, in their late teens in London when Thatcher came to power, her icy, humorless and uncompromising demeanor stand out as symbols of the time.
Endless strikes and power outages were a continuing part of daily life, as was a growing societal message that disapproved of people in a worse situation than your own was perfectly okay. Thatcher pitted class against class in a very real way – the class divide today is still perfectly visible in Britain.
For my boyfriend’s parents, too, Thatcher represented the absolute death of socialism. (N.B. socialism in Britain is not the dirty word it is in the states!) Her philosophy of individualism, encapsulated by the famed comment: “There’s no such thing as society” represents a tremendous rightward shift for Britain. No longer is it necessary for a Brit to help out his/her neighbor. Each person is an island, an individual who must rely on only him or herself to achieve anything in life. It weakened us socially.
For a family friend, the stand-out legislation of the Thatcher years was the Housing Act of 1980, which allowed people living in council-owned housing to buy them from the local authority at low prices. Of course, the legislation aimed to drag people out of poverty, but the money was never channeled back into council housing and left a dire shortage of such housing in the future. The act, then, ended up causing huge problems for the working class. On Monday, hearing of Thatcher’s passing, my family friend admitted she felt happy—Thatcher encouraged greed, ruined communities and caused immeasurable pain for thousands of families.
Happy, sad, or indifferent, it is clear that Thatcher’s death has coaxed out a range of emotions in Brits that for some have lay rather dormant since 1990. While she was never a feminist icon and in fact expressed her dislike toward the feminist movement, it is unquestionably an impressive thing that the Iron Lady clawed her way to the top of the political heap. A strict headmistress to an all-boys school, she cleverly used this icy demeanor to, in a sense, scare her way to the top. She furthermore fixed a number of problems that needed solving in 1980s Britain, albeit doing so in an uncompromising and ruthless way. Ideology, for Thatcher, was everything. If a thousand jobs were lost and lives ruined in order to establish a modern, meritocratic societal structure of trickle-down economics, then you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Perhaps the late Baroness Thatcher didn’t realize that she was not the Prime Minister of a country in which everyone wanted an omelet. Some people were happy with their eggs.
And so, this week, I can’t profess to be one of the people dancing with joy over the passing of Baroness Thatcher; her death is not good news or bad news but merely news. Rather, I am saddened to ponder her legacy and watch Britain from across the pond with, I suppose, a sigh. I hope we learnt something from her time in office about our communities and our world. And I hope we can regard her time in office not just with contempt, but with a sense of having tried politics one way, and learnt from our mistakes. Let’s move on.