Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rigor Mortis for the Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher's death was long overdue:  I lived in the same area of SE London that she did back in 2001-2003; she was already reportedly suffering from dementia, and there were no public sightings of her during that whole period.  Needless to say, she didn't get better.

For that matter, she'd already withdrawn from public life by that point for at least a decade, after the public political assassination she suffered from her party in 1990, when the Conservatives threw her under the bus in favor of John Major.  Her popularity had never been all that strong outside her party, and her uncompromising stances had finally turned enough of her supporters off. 

In her prime--basically, the 1980's--she was extremely powerful and effective in the British government, as influential as anyone since World War II in shaping the society. The shadow of her government's influence was visible influence on Major's government, on Tony Blair's (the triangulation after the Thatcher revolution, just as Bill Clinton's was to Ronald Reagan's), and now on David Cameron's:  Thatcherism with a human face.

I exaggerate, but only a little.  Whether you liked her politics or not, you had to respect her ruthlessness.  Margaret Thatcher stood out among all politicians of this age, of either gender, for cold-blooded competence.  Of women leaders, she is not unique in that characteristic--I think of Indira Gandhi of India, and of Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka--but she was a tough cookie by any standard.  Clear examples were her stance with regard to the IRA and in the British Army's occupation of Northern Ireland, and the manner in which she conducted the war against Argentina for the Falklands.

What were her politics all about?  The radical opposition to the ideas and practice of social democracy.  It's something often found in the petit bourgeoisie, which describes her upbringing as a grocer's daughter.  She formed her opinions early and maintained them forever--you could take her or leave her, but there was no levering her.  Not even a bomb planted a floor underneath her hotel room in Brighton could shake her will. She was all about breaking the unions; her shibboleth, the equivalent of Reagan's PATCO strike breaking of the air-traffic controllers, was the coal miners' union and their persistent striking.  She basically wrote the book on privatizing, on dis-empowering rebellious local governments, on putting down the rebellions of the masses upset with things like austerity, unemployment, and denial of government services.  And we (meaning, the governments)--in Britain, and in the US--have been riffing off her playbook, more or less, ever since. 

She will get the national heroic treatment for her funeral--Westminster Abbey, royal family, etc. As well she should:  she was the leading nationalist/imperial British politician of the postwar period, as well (since Churchill, anyway).  The Malvinas Putdown was one of the few successful pro-colonial events of the last 70 years.  There is something to be said for her intervention rescuing Britain from a drain-swirling malaise:  at least it's still clinging to the side of the bowl, and she might deserve some of the credit for that.

I need to mention the movie made of her life in late 2011, Iron Lady.  I refer you also to my comments made then; I didn't like the movie all that much, as I felt it dwelt too much on her later dementia and really touched much too lightly on the reality of her governance.  Ronald Reagan was just a quick dance memory; Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall didn't even come into it, let alone the domestic strife prevalent throughout her term.  This is not to criticize at all her portrayal by Meryl Streep, which was brilliant and thoroughly deserved the Oscar that she received. 

I think that the real story of her administration and her time is yet to come, one that should be told by people who were inside the government (or maybe in the opposition), who saw both her strengths and weaknesses, and how they played out in the country, during and after her government,  and who could do justice to the complexity of the policy issues she tackled.  It was something she never did, nor could she ever, as she was too much at the heart of it, without any objective viewpoint of it all.

No comments: