You need look no further than the online messageboards of the Daily Mail or Telegraph to find a wealth of support and admiration that still exists for Margaret Thatcher. “How we do need her now” says one poster (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1230319/Margaret-Thatcher-returns-10-Downing-Street-official-unveiling-new-portrait.html#comments). This sentiment is something I have come across many times on right-leaning websites, but it is not just restricted to these portals. I have had many conversations with friends and acquaintances, many of whom are not Conservative voters, and experienced this same nostalgia for Maggie. With a new high-profile Thatcher biopic, ‘The Iron Lady’, coming out in a month, Thatcher is once more back in the limelight.
Regardless of my opinion of her politics, few would argue Maggie was not a strong leader. I am currently reading part one of her autobiography, ‘The Path To Power’, and her conviction is consistent throughout. She believed in the free market, she resented the big state, and, as a corollary, she loathed socialism. As someone who leans to the left, I find myself regularly frustrated as I read her book. She throws the ‘s’ word out so generously, you’d think every policy ever concocted by the Labour party had had mandatory approval by Karl Marx.
But her ideas and her beliefs were clear. This lady really wasn’t for turning and at a time when Britain was in economic and industrial turmoil, this Iron Lady was an attractive prospect to many. We think one day of strikes is inconvenient; try living in the 1970s. What I find interesting about Thatcher – as the first female Prime Minister – is that she was actually rather masculine. Not in appearance, no. Gordon Reece understood that her appeal lay not in just her passion for traditional conservatism, but in this ‘Iron Lady’ image itself. He helped ‘polish’ this image – the deep voice, the hairstyle, the suits. This wife and mother of two could also mix with the big boys in the Tory party and she would not flip flop her beliefs to suit the changing political times. These were her beliefs – freedom, laissez-faire capitalism, British Empire – and you can either like them or lump them. She smashed the stereotype of woman as homemaker – indeed she juggled family life with political life – and in doing so, appealed to men. And not just men of the middle and upper classes, but also to working class men too. Maybe not a large proportion of working class men, no, but a significant number regardless. Deference still had much influence back then.
And so this country elected Maggie three consecutive times, which surely speaks for something. Her leadership during the Falklands War of 1982 reinforced this image of strength… a protector of Britain and its empire. A woman willing to send our boys thousands of miles away to defend what is ours. Yes, this woman had strength. And in 2011, many in this country are looking back through rose-tinted glasses at those years. But why?
It has been a turbulent few years for people in this country. We have emerged from the deepest recession since World War Two and still find ourselves on precarious economic ground. In 2010, we couldn’t quite decide if we really did trust David Cameron to sort our problems out, and now we have a coalition government, the first full coalition since the war. Our elected officials have used and abused our trust and swindled taxpayers out of thousands of pounds’ worth of money to fund their lavish lifestyles. The austerity measures of the current administration have left many of us hurt and damaged, whilst we bemoan just another example of the “bankers getting away with it”. Clearly we are a confused nation going through confused times. We have lost trust in our Members of Parliament. Whereas some take up arms against the current government and look to the future, many instead look back at a time when one woman would not back down in the face of adversity. A time when we were ruled by a woman who would likely have banished the word ‘coalition’ from her lexicon. In times of uncertainty and worry, some look for strength and comfort… and they find Maggie.
I believe such nostalgia is misplaced. Well of course I do, I’m a bleeding heart liberal. But whilst we may long for a leader made of iron, we overlook many of her flaws and mistakes. Those looking back fondly need to take off those rose-tinted specs and realise that Maggie was not infallible – the manner in which her resignation played out in 1990 exemplifies that. For every Thatcherite, there is a bitter Labourite. For every yuppie, a demoralised miner. For every family made wealthy by her tax cuts, a broken family struggling to rub two pennies together.
We may be nostalgic for Thatcher’s conviction, but let us not forget her errors and failures, some of which had devastating effects for many in our country, particularly in the northern regions. Her unwillingness to compromise on Northern Ireland did little to stop the prolonged periods of terrorism that we experienced in British towns and cities. Her unwavering support for the free market saw manufacturing shipped abroad on the cheap, leaving thousands of British workers unemployed. Her intolerance for the Left resulted in many Labour-run councils stripped of funding, despite her calls for more localism and less state intervention. Clearly this was only okay when she had a political point to make.
In essence, Thatcher embodies everything that is wrong with our political and economic system today. The greed and me-me-me attitude of the banking industry in the past few years is a direct consequence of Thatcher’s lust for a world where “there is no such thing as society”. It is, I believe, right to let people get on with their lives and pursue whatever career or life goals they wish. But this only works if the correct regulation is in place so as to not damage other people’s prospects and opportunities. Her hatred for regulation allowed big business and corporations to run amok and pile up the cash, whilst many low-income workers were left to suffer the consequences. Any of this sound familiar?
On Monday, it was the 21st anniversary of Maggie’s resignation. We may be two decades onwards from that point, and three from her initial election as Prime Minister, but some things have not changed. I wish Thatcher no ill; I find those on the left who are ready to dance on her grave despicable – have you no basic humanity? But the stark truth is that her legacy – good and bad – and the effects of Thatcherism will live on far beyond her passing. We may crave strong leadership during these testing times of economic frailty and smug PR-politics, but let us think a little more thoroughly before we open our mouths and say, “I wish we had Maggie”. Strength must not be confused for good leadership or a faultless premiership. At its most extreme example, we can find strong leadership in fascism. That’s an over exaggeration I think, but the principle is important. We must be careful what we wish for, because history has taught us that we can easily fall down the slippery slope.