Opinion on Baroness Thatcher was undivided when I came to the UK in the mid-90s. Among people my own age she was considered more evil than the most evil thing that ever was. My contemporaries could not imagine voting Tory regardless of Conservative policies, so tainted was the brand by the wicked witch who had ruled the country for a generation.
The poll tax riots and the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder that had broken out during the years she was Prime Minister showed that she was not universally loved. That she was re-elected again and again in honest elections showed that she was not universally hated. She polarised people in a way that some leaders do. Like Barack Obama does.
Watching the United Kingdom from outside during the 1970s we saw a shambles. We saw a country where labour unrest, orchestrated by undemocratic unions, destroyed industry after industry. We saw a country where the writ of law barely seemed to run.
The word ‘decline’ seemed to be written large across the front of the United Kingdom.
When Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, became Prime Minister we saw a transformation. After years working closely with UK government and studying the history of the changes she made, it is clear that she was more than just an unpleasant and divisive woman.
Mrs Thatcher permitted meritocracy into government in a way that none of her predecessors had. During her time in power it became permissible to be female, Jewish and gay at most levels of the Civil Service, in the judiciary, in Parliament and in Cabinet. Her cabinet members were sneered at: “Old Estonian” Jews.
In an age overshadowed by nuclear confrontation she showed that it was still possible to use armed force judiciously. Her intervention against the Argentine junta in the Falkland Islands was a stand on behalf of democracy and national interest in a time when autocracy and ideology seemed to be winning all the battles. Her readiness to intervene against Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait and menacing of Saudi Arabia stiffened American resolve and weakened a dictator whose hands were reaching to grasp the taps on the world’s oil supply.
Her destruction of much of the socialist apparatus of the British economy showed that such a thing was possible. After half a century in which socialism and its bastard brother Communism had created overwhelmingly powerful state economies around the world, she began the trickle that turned into the torrent that rushed through the Berlin wall. Without a Prime Minister Thatcher there could have been no President Wałęsa, no President Havel, no finance minister Netanyahu.
Perhaps most important, she set out to destroy the English class system that dominated the United Kingdom. In making the attempt she made most of her enemies and probably wrought her own ruin. She broke the hold of the upper and upper-middle classes on all aspects of government. She smashed the working class’s hatred of aspiration. She prompted a poisonous response when she tried to make the entire country classless by making the entire country middle-class.
It is little appreciated by people outside the United Kingdom, and sometimes even inside the United Kingdom, how tight a straitjacket class was, and to some extent still is.
It was especially tight on the working class, where aspiration to higher education and certain kinds of economic advantage was considered class treason.
She fought against undemocratic labour unions and their monarchial leaders, against cozy arrangements like academic tenure, and against local government creating powerful fiefdoms of patronage and graft. In the end she ran out of victories and was pushed into retirement.
She is often grouped with Ronald Reagan, who has gone on to be overwhelmingly revered in his own country. The comparison is natural because they were contemporaries in power and because they had such a close working relationship. By comparison, however, Reagan was a cheap ideologue, a creature of his advisers and a mouthpiece for others. A genius communicator he was, but never her equal.
Reagan showed America that it could find its way out of the malaise of the 1970s. Thatcher kicked Britain out of the malaise of the 1970s.
If there is an American president to whom Baroness Thatcher should be compared it is Richard Nixon, not Ronald Reagan. Like Nixon she was an outsider who smashed structures and endured the disdain of elites who considered her an upstart. Unlike the Trickster, Baroness Thatcher was well-balanced and rarely underhanded.
Like every Prime Minister who has come after her, Baroness Thatcher treated Israel as a positive strategic partner for the UK. This is no small task in a government where the might of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office represents a formidable counterweight to what a Prime Minister or even a Foreign Secretary might try to achieve. While she and her successors have been cozy with leaders from all around the Middle East, she demonstrated that it was possible to conduct foreign policy in the region without treating Israel as a pariah.
Perhaps the craters and furrows of her battles are still too raw for her to be viewed objectively.
The period of singing “ding-dong the witch is dead” will show how much pain she caused in her career.
Gerry Adams has solemnly condemned her violent and divisive policies to journalists who appeared not to scoff at that repellent irony coming from an old Provo baron.
So as I raise a glass to the memory of the Blessed Margaret, I can smell a whiff of the tear gas and just a bit of coal smoke. But I still drink to her as a woman who should become the patron saint of disruption. She smashed barriers, she smashed structures and she shaped the world we live in more than almost anyone else in my lifetime.