Margaret Thatcher: She changed Britain, and divided it

  • Dipankar De Sarkar, Hindustan Times, London
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  • Updated: Apr 09, 2013 03:35 IST

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister, remains a bitterly divisive figure at home even if she once strode the world stage leading a transformational charge against socialism.

Her 11 years in office saw her enforce the most colossal changes in post-War Britain, as the woman known variously as Maggie and the Iron Lady systematically dismantled the building blocks of the country’s socialist edifice.

Sticking decisively to her right-wing, pro-free market principles, she was a thorn on the side of not only old-style, male-dominated union leaders allied to the Labour party but also moderates within her own Conservative party. But “the lady”, as she famously declared, was “not for turning.”

In the process, she shook up and irreversibly changed every aspect of the nation she led, including the Labour movement itself. From 1979, when she became PM, the Left in Britain was left floundering in its search for new principles and desperate for an election win that came only in 1996 – under a party styled New Labour.

“I knew the credibility of the whole New Labour project rested on accepting that much of what she wanted to do in the 1980s was inevitable, a consequence not of ideology but of social and economic change,” admitted New Labour PM Tony Blair.

Thatcher a greengrocer’s daughter and, therefore, wedded to the idea of meritocracy – energised the fight against ossified vested interests both at home and abroad. She was quick to recognise that the privatisation was the way to promote meritocracy, economic growth and social mobility.

Along with her closest international ally, US President Ronald Reagan, she drove privatization internationally. At home, she allowed the sales of utilities and state-built housing, allowing thousands of working class people to move up the economic and social ladder.

Not surprisingly this newly-enriched class now became a vote-bank of the Thatcher-led Conservative party – a dramatic reshaping of the political architecture that stimulated similar changes in other democracies. “She was an intrepid warrior for freedom,” mourned the Heritage Foundation in the United States.

Thatcher effectively killed what is known as the British Disease – workers’ strikes – by effectively defeating labour unions, most famously the coalminers led by her socialist nemesis Arthur Scargill.

“There is no such thing as society,” she declared audaciously, as her principles – or ideology – came to be anointed Thatcherism, the free market twin of Reaganism across the Atlantic. Her uncompromising style made her a top target of IRA terrorists, who bombed a hotel where she and her party colleagues were staying in 1984.

“All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,” she declared the next day – a theme she took up again in the late 80s when she named rising Islamic terrorism as the greatest security threat in the post-Cold War world.

She helped Britain claw back some of its international prestige lost since the 1970s – most dramatically by defeating Argentina in the 1982 war over the Falklands island, sending warships against all advice.


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