Friday, April 12, 2013

Margaret stands down:
Baroness Thatcher (1925-2013)

“One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.”

— Voltaire

BARONESS MARGARET Hilda Roberts Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, died at the Ritz Hotel in London on Monday morning of a stroke, at the age of 87. The baroness, and formerly the first and only woman prime minister of the United Kingdom, had been in declining health for some years.

Inquiring minds and others can agree on that much about Thatcher. But what’s emerged in the days since her death was announced has been a flood of reactions from a variety of perspectives — some of them pro, some of them con, but all of them consistent with Voltaire’s thinking. There’s no way to hurt her feelings now. There weren’t a lot of ways to hurt her feelings when she was alive.

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Thatcher sparked or championed policies that revived the British economy; through her forthright personality, Britain restored its role as a world power, a global player. Her domestic economic policies helped dramatically boost home ownership, and also led to an expansion of the investor class. During her 11 years and seven months as PM, Britain enjoyed a rise in personal wealth and security.

Thatcher defended environmental protection in 1990, warning that the depletion of the ozone layer was happening faster than expected, and calling for a global convention to address climate change.

And partly because of policies she set in motion, the disparity in compensation between the sexes dropped to one of the lowest in western nations. “Under Thatcher, women saw salary rises that paid them 76% of male full-time pay - up from 73%, the Guardian UK reported. “It has improved since then -- in 2011 it was 84.8%.”

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NOW FLIP the script. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and as reported by The Guardian UK, poverty grew like a virus in the Thatcher era. “In 1979, 13.4% of the population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%, or 12.2 [million] people, with huge rises in the mid-1980s,” The Guardian reported. Child poverty increased in the UK during her tenure, with 28 percent of children living below the poverty line by the time she stepped down, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006.

Thatcher opposed sanctions against the apartheid South African government, calling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress “a typical terrorist organization.” She called for the release of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested for war crimes for the imprisonment and torture of thousands of Chilean dissidents.

Thatcher spearheaded tax policies that moved the burden from the wealthiest Britons to the poorest Britons; a poll tax instituted before she left office in 1990 — the so-called Community Charge — was so divisive it led to riots nationwide, including the “Battle of Trafalgar,” a March 1990 confrontation between protesters and London police.

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WE LIKE to think of the period near the end of 1980 as the start of the rise of the conservative dynamic: inward, reactionary, selfish, intolerant. It’s not really true. Not only did Thatcher serve longer as prime minister than Reagan served as president of the United States; Thatcher was prime minister before Reagan was president.

At least some of the credit that Reagan has historically assumed as arbiter of the conservative zeitgeist — the avatar of the suspicious, culturally antagonistic, Ayn Randian political philosophy that still animates conservatism in America — rightly belongs to Thatcher, who became the British prime minister 18 months before Reagan won election in 1980, and five months before Reagan launched his candidacy.

If Thatcher hadn’t won in England, Reagan may have had a more difficult path to the U.S. presidency, optically and operationallly. Never mind the details of the differences between our economics and the UK’s, or the fact that American conservatism is hardly analogous with British conservatism. Thatcher’s governing style — direct, confrontational, uncompromising — set the stage for Reagan’s own.

The ascension of Margaret Thatcher may have been necessary to make the ascension of Ronald Reagan possible.

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In some ways, they may have learned from each other.

There was one distilling hallmark of Reagan’s first term, an early sign of how tough he could be. In 1981, President Reagan was faced with a paralyzing prospect: a looming strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, PATCO, whose members sought a reduced workweek, and improved compensation and working conditions.

From the Rose Garden in August, invoking Taft-Hartley, Reagan threw down a gauntlet, declaring flat out that the government trade union’s strikers “are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

PATCO strikers didn’t budge. Neither did Reagan. Two days later he fired more than 11,000 of them, complicating life for the nation’s airports for years to come but sending a signal that his government would not be hostage to the unions ... and marking one of the first warning shots across the bow of Big Labor — shots that continue from conservatives today.

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FAST FORWARD to March 1984. Thatcher, faced with a similar test of wills with the mining trade unions, may well have borrowed from Reagan’s no-bluff playbook. The miners’ union walked out to protest a cut of more than 12 percent of the nation’s state-owned mine operations, and an 11 percent cut in jobs.

Thatcher wouldn’t budge on union demands, despite the eventual loss of tens of millions of workhours lost to the industry and, by extension, the national economy. As with Reagan, it was a matter of principle.

She observed many of the same tropes and embraced the same memes of conservatism in the UK prevalent, then and now, in the United States: aggressive anti-union sentiment, support for privatizing elements of the national economy, and a reinforcement of the primacy of the national identity — sometimes at the expense of those whose personal identities don’t dovetail with the mainstream ideal.

To one degree or another, by coincidence or by accident, Ronald Reagan and his 1980 presidential campaign took cues from her approach to winning the prime minister’s office. Thatcher’s style, personality, and forthrightness were formidable assets; so was a willingness to be utterly intractable about a plan to govern. Reagan used his own similar assets, blending charm and steel, in his own White House campaign a year after Thatcher first won 10 Downing Street.

U.S. UK. Maybe they've got more in common than we thought.

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The British prime minister, whose bouffant nimbus of red hair was as much a trademark as the lacerating observations from the mind and mouth underneath, was nothing if not indelible. Thatcher cast a long shadow over British politics, and even its culture.

Much of the best music of the Clash — and especially “Sandinista” (December 1980) the band’s sprawling, muscular masterpiece — couldn’t have existed in its present form without the almost Dickensian class divisions of Thatcherite politics, which helped focus the group’s populist sensibilities and emotional underpinnings.

And anyone who was a fan of The English Beat back in the day remembers the song whose chorus — “Stand down Margaret, stand down please” — became a rallying cry for young, disaffected Britons of every spot in the UK racial spectrum.

The British director Ken Loach was brilliantly acidic this week, calling Thatcher "the most divisive and destructive Prime Minister of modern times."

“How should we honour her? Let’s privatise her funeral,” Loach said in a statement, as reported in TheWrap. “Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It’s what she would have wanted.”

"Mass Unemployment, factory closures, communities destroyed – this is her legacy. She was a fighter and her enemy was the British working class," Loach said.

And Thatcher’s legacy thunders into the present day. On the night of the day she died, street parties took place, The Guardian reported. The cries went up in Glasgow and in the Brixton section of south London: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, dead dead dead!”

The folks in West Belfast weren’t slouches, either:

And rest assured there was much the same reaction in Argentina, especially after Thursday’s news that Britain would not invite Argentine President Cristina Fernandez to the Thatcher funeral next Wednesday. "It's about adhering to her family's wishes," the source told Reuters.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that Thatcher's children Mark and Carol said it would be “inappropriate” for anyone from the country to attend.

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WITH AN ARMY of supporters and another army of detractors, this longest-serving British prime minister of modern times was a Rashomon figure, a Downing Street Rorschach test whose strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and catastrophes are so defined according to who you’re talking to.

On the BBC News Web site, author Dominc Sandbrook observed “a supreme irony in the fact that Thatcher, who loathed feminism, came to embody the extraordinary expansion in the horizons of Britain's women, which was arguably the single biggest social change of the 20th Century.”

Dave Wakeling, the British guitarist who wrote “Stand Down Margaret,” noted in The Hoillywood Reporter: “Some say Margaret Thatcher broke the glass ceiling for women, but she didn’t. Pretending to be an aristocratic man that liked to bully people is not any essence of feminine power. It was just aping the worst of male power.”

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Slipnslide, commenting at The Wrap, says Thatcher “left us with a legacy of I'm all right Jack, conscienceless selfishness that has scarred millions of Brits forever, and the society that she insisted didn't exist. She was good for some; she was absolutely awful for countless others ...”

Prime Minister David Cameron: “Today we lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton. Margaret Thatcher didn’t just lead our country; she saved our country.”

Dave Wakeling: “We understood England was in a pickle and needed to modernize, but we really didn't need to become a floating aircraft carrier for America and at the same time give up our own traditions. Every country and every decade has to deal with change, but it was done with cruelty and arrogantly. Because of that, it created more enemies than friends.”

There it is: Adoration and disdain. Love and hate. Somewhere between the tales of two Daves, between the two extremes, is Margaret Thatcher, once a subject of Britain, now and forever a captive of history.

Image credits: Thatcher top: via UK unemployment under Thatcher graph: The Guardian (UK). PATCO logo: Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Reagan: public domain. Thatcher front page: The Daily Mirror (UK).

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