(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 24.)
LIKE a lot of people, I’ve been thinking lately about Margaret Thatcher. My feelings about her are, to use a fashionable term, conflicted.The best way I can explain it is to say that it was possible to respect what she achieved without actually liking her.
Mrs Thatcher was imperious. She gave the impression of never harbouring a moment’s self-doubt.She professed to love nothing more than a good argument, but you got the impression that she had little patience for anyone expressing a contrary opinion. I suspect she enjoyed arguments only if she won them – which she usually did, through sheer force of will and an overwhelming sense of her own rightness.
Like another revered British leader, Winston Churchill, she sometimes gave the impression of being largely indifferent to the human consequences of her policies.She focused unwaveringly on the end goal, and if there were casualties along the way … well, that was the price to be paid for getting things done.
These are not qualities that necessarily engender feelings of warmth and affection, but it was exactly these characteristics that made her such a formidable prime minister.She seemed immune to the uncertainties that would assail most politicians pursuing controversial and unpopular policies. Perhaps she just lacked natural empathy, but I think it’s more likely she trained herself to be steely and unyielding because she knew that was what the job demanded, and that any sign of sensitivity or frailty could be politically fatal.
Those who worked with her said she did, in fact, have a human, compassionate side that was rarely glimpsed by the public.Like Churchill, Mrs Thatcher came along when her country most needed her.
Britain had emerged from World War II nominally a victor, but sapped of energy and spirit. It was as though all the effort expended in defeating Nazi Germany had left it exhausted.Three decades of steady decline followed. Britain’s empire disintegrated and its industries could no longer compete. Nationalisation of failing companies – many of them terminally weakened by militant unionism – served only to delay their inevitable demise, at the taxpayers’ expense. Strikes and industrial unrest became known as the “British disease”.
Under both Tory and Labour governments, the dead hand of the state assumed an ever larger role in the economy, with stultifying consequences. Despite occasional entertaining distractions (the Mini, the Beatles, Swinging London), the trajectory was remorselessly downwards.Britain reached its nadir in the 1970s. Inflation was rampant and strikes were constant; garbage piled up in the streets and power blackouts made life intolerable. At one point Britain was reduced to a three-day working week because of electricity shortages caused by coal miners’ strikes. The advent of punk music in 1976 – angry and anarchic – seemed a perfect symbol of the times.
It all culminated in the Winter of Discontent in 1979, so named because a wave of strikes coincided with the coldest winter in 16 years. Even gravediggers refused to work, causing corpses to be piled up in a disused factory.That was the setting in which Mrs Thatcher came to power. Rarely has any Western leader in peacetime had a better excuse for taking decisive action. And she made the most of the opportunity, instigating a programme of radical economic reform that included deregulation, privatisation of state-owned industries and emasculation of a union movement that had become intoxicated with power.
Many of the protesters who danced in the streets on hearing of her death weren’t even born when all this happened. Their warped understanding of the period probably comes from the many films that portray Thatcherism as a vicious attack on the working class.Even now, among left-wing film directors and scriptwriters of a certain age, Thatcherism remains a burning pre-occupation. But I shudder to think how Britain might have turned out had it surrendered to the ugly class hatred propounded by union bullies such as the coal miners’ leader Arthur Scargill (who, incidentally, is still fighting the class war as leader of the breakaway Socialist Labour Party).
It’s true that the jury is still out on aspects of Mrs Thatcher’s prime ministership. In the industrial north of England, communities remain bitter about the impact of mine closures and other consequences of her policies. Debate about the efficacy of her economic reforms, and in particular their effect on income disparity, still rages.But it’s unarguable that she transformed Britain and restored British pride. The vibrant, dynamic Thatcherite Britain where I spent three months in 1985 was far removed from the wretched, demoralised nation of the late 1970s.
It’s equally unarguable that the dire situation Mrs Thatcher inherited in 1979 required emphatic action. Britain was on its knees. Many of the industries that closed down on her watch were dinosaurs already, condemned to extinction by a combination of weak management and suicidal union militancy.Perhaps her master stroke, politically, was going to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Whatever the British people felt about her economic policies, bloodying the noses of the Argies – and thereby restoring, however briefly, a sense of Britain’s faded military glory – elevated Mrs Thatcher to the status of a warrior queen in the tradition of Boadicea.
New Zealand supported Britain in that military adventure by sending two frigates to the Indian Ocean, thus freeing up British warships to help in the Falklands. But whatever gratitude Mrs Thatcher may have felt for that gesture quickly evaporated after David Lange replaced Rob Muldoon as prime minister in 1984 and New Zealand embarked on its nuclear-free policy.It seemed she considered New Zealand a valued ally as long as it dutifully did whatever was in Britain’s interests, but woe betide us if we had the impertinence to pursue a foreign policy of our own choosing.
Her disapproval of our independent nuclear stance was made clear by her refusal to sanction criticism of the French for blowing up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. That was not only a classic piece of Thatcher imperiousness – she probably thought the French were right to put us in our place, upstarts that we were – but demonstrated a very selective morality.A similar moral blind spot was evident in her friendship with the murderous Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet, who ingratiated himself with Mrs Thatcher by giving Britain clandestine support against Argentina.
As I say, not an easy woman to like. But it’s hard to argue with her accomplishments, and she certainly deserved better than to have vengeful, embittered losers metaphorically dancing on her grave.