Margaret Thatcher

Let us add our voice from the High Doganate to those of the world’s more prominent statesmen & cultural figures, regretting the death of Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, the retired research chemist & barrister. We are all so terribly sorry. She was also, as I vividly recall, wife to the late Major Denis Thatcher, MBE, and prime ministrix of one of the larger states in the European Union for an extended period.

Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) rose to prominence herself in the 1970s, as ministrix of education in the Edward Heath cabinet, when she cut funding for a free milk programme & thus became “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher” to the people her husband characterized as “bloody poofs & Trots.” Then she replaced Mr Heath, after his defeat in the second 1974 election, to the consternation not only of the Left, but of the old guard in her own party.

At the time I lived in England, in a small workman’s cottage in Vauxhall, at the north end of the Borough of Lambeth, inner London near the Thames. I was in a parliamentary constituency where the Tories could expect to finish sixth, behind not only Labour, Liberals, Leninists, & Maoists, but also the Monster Raving Loony Party of Screaming Lord Sutch. It was therefore provocative of me to put a party poster featuring Mrs Thatcher’s smiling face in my parlour window, & I remember the tinkle of glass when a rock came through it the first night.

(It was a large window, & cost me just over 4 pounds to repair. A few months later I repeated the experiment with a Yankee flag crossed with the Union Jack, & the legend, “O Say Does That Star Spangled Banner Yet Wave!” in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial. By this time the price of the glass had risen to 4 pounds, 90 new pee, & I resolved to stick with velvet curtains.)

An enthusiast for the death penalty, who had voted in Parliament for the decriminalization of homosexuality, & of abortion, back in the 1960s when both measures were certain to lose, the Iron Lady was in no sense a “social conservative.” She became one only in the Left’s fevered imagination. Nor, curiously enough, was she ever fundamentally opposed to the welfare state (which continued to grow under her premiership), nor any kind of Imperialist abroad beyond a mild nostalgia for the old British Empire, & opposition to Soviet Communism.

She was most certainly a larger than life politician. A unique case, at the time, of a woman becoming head of a national government whose father or husband had not preceded her, she belongs to the history of politics, not the history of ideas. The most useful comparison is I think to Charles de Gaulle, a man whose interests were neither Left nor Right but vested entirely in France. Thatcher winced, physically winced, at the decline of Britain, & like de Gaulle would do anything necessary to reverse national decline. Her embrace of various economic measures was not ideological. A very intelligent woman, capable of thinking even while in elective office (extremely rare), she became sincerely convinced that privatization, deregulation, & breaking the back of the unions was the only way for Britain to pull out of its post-War death spiral.

Prior to about 1974, she was not even clearly a “Thatcherite.” She deeply admired Keith Joseph, for his courageous & independent view of British realities. It was through his circle she heard of Friedrich Hayek, whom I’m sure she never had the time to read, but was called in to explain to her some of the broader points of economics. A give-&-take politician, she sounded more strident than she was thanks to a screechy Lincolnshire fishmonger accent which she had “fixed” with professional voice training. (Sarah Palin would be President today if she’d taken lessons in voice & deportment.) Thatcher stepped forward as candidate to succeed Heath only as a replacement for Keith Joseph, who was convinced he did not have the temperament for the job. Thatcher, he believed with characteristic foresight, had that temperament.

She was lucky to remain in opposition through four full years, thus given leisure to complete her self-transformation. She won in 1979 perhaps only because James Callaghan made a political miscalculation, not going to the polls the year before. It was the shivering “winter of discontent” that steeled the British public to abandon Labour’s badly failed industrial policies, & it was the behaviour of the radical union bosses that made voting for Thatcher thinkable even among the working classes.

I will not go into more of the long history, but skip forward to the moral, or morals, which are three. The first is to admire the character of Mrs Thatcher, the politician, holding her ground when she “knew” that she was right. Courage is a rare thing in any walk of life, but the kind of courage that was required to stand up against received opinion & attitudes not only in the country at large, but within her own party, & among her own cabinet colleagues, was quite extraordinary. She was the equal of Churchill in that regard.

The second is to acknowledge providence. She rose to office, survived in it, & prevailed on major policy questions, against formidable odds, thanks often to sheer luck. Some of this happened in plain public view (e.g. the Falklands crisis that saved her government in 1982, or the Brighton hotel bombing in 1984), but much of it below the radar of the media, in the “constellation” (nice old Elizabethan astrological term) of chance events in individual lives. And each she seized upon, without much choice, as she was sinking. When she did finally go down for the count in 1990, it was with all luck expired & one last knife in the back from her contemptible deputy, Geoffrey Howe. She very nearly survived that, too, but in the end personal grit was insufficient.

The third is to recognize how difficult it is to put & keep a decent politician in power, at any time in any genuinely representative democracy. “The lady is not for turning,” Mrs Thatcher famously said, but the British public was always for turning, & never bought into the “Thatcher revolution,” or felt the least commitment to it. Her doctrine of enterprise was taken up, mostly, by a small minority of hucksters, who made Britain not only superficially much richer, but also much more crass. The people at large learnt nothing, even from their pain, & casually abandoned the course she had set soon after she was gone, retaining only the crassness. Whether for better or for worse, they never much loved, usually despised, & did not deserve Mrs Thatcher.

What they have now, in the slimy David Cameron, is closer to what they deserve: a typical politician floating with the jetsam on the shallow waves; a man not of character but of rat cunning, like the overwhelming majority of successful politicians in every democracy; who will flourish until his own luck runs out, & leave a legacy of waste, moral stench & dissolution.

Gentle reader will know me for a fairly rabid “social conservative,” who could not possibly approve much of the Thatcher agenda, though I was with her entirely through the Cold War, both foreign & domestic. She was hardly an enemy of “statism” — she was saving the state, & the bourgeois economy upon which it depends for its sustenance, from ruin. In the larger sweep of time, we cannot know whether doing that was a good thing. It may well have been irrelevant to Eternity.

But one of the great men of history, graced with an exemplary spine.