Thatcher and Thatcherism

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Editorial, Issue 3 May/June2013, Volume 21

from the editorA friend of mine got a text the other day—‘The wicked witch is dead’. It wasn’t until she tuned in to the news that evening that she realised that this wasn’t a cryptic reference to the Wizard of Oz but to the death (the result of a stroke) of an 87-year-old woman who had suffered from dementia for many years—Baroness Margaret Thatcher. This, and similar tasteless comments on the blogosphere, was in marked contrast to the sycophantic outpourings of world leaders—‘one of the great champions of freedom and liberty’ (Obama), an ‘extraordinary woman’ (Merkel), ‘greatest British peace-time prime minister’ (Cameron), etc., etc. In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher was a polarising figure.
Predictably, primarily owing to her decision to allow ten H-block prisoners to die on hunger strike in 1981, she was a hate-figure for Irish republicans. The antipathy was mutual—and was not just political but also personal. Two of Thatcher’s closest confidants, Airey Neave (1979) and Ian Gow (1990), were assassinated by republican paramilitaries, and she herself narrowly escaped a similar fate at Brighton in 1984. But even amongst moderate Irish nationalists she was unpopular. Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald described her ‘out, out, out’ rejection of the New Ireland Forum report in 1984 as ‘gratuitously offensive’.
But the acid test of Thatcher’s legacy is how history will judge it from a British point of view. Did she ‘save our country’, as claimed by David Cameron? From a constitutional point of view, an argument can be made that by alienating the regions beyond the ‘home counties’, and Scotland in particular, she hastened the break-up of the United Kingdom. (The jury’s still out on that one.) It’s in the economic sphere that she has drawn most plaudits. The Britain of the 1970s, a cruel parody of the idealism of the Beveridge welfare reforms of the 1940s, was an easy target. But was the ‘loadsamoney’ Britain of the 1980s that she brought into being any better? And by the time Thatcher left office in 1990 the UK had a growing balance of payments deficit, an alarming inflation rate, reduced manufacturing output and rising unemployment.
Perhaps that’s the point: that her legacy is one of style over substance. There’s no doubt that she made (some) Britons feel ‘great’ but she did not fundamentally alter Britain’s standing in the world, in particular its subordinate relationship to the United States. Moreover, the neo-liberal agenda that she pursued—‘Thatcherism’ (subsequently embraced by ruling elites elsewhere, including Ireland)—has resulted in the crisis in which we now find ourselves. Thatcher may be dead but we are still reaping the whirlwind of Thatcherism.

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