“The British people apparently think Margaret Thatcher is either Churchill or Hitler,” was columnist Tony Parsons’ assessment of his countrymen’s reaction to the recent death of the longest serving Prime Minister of the last 150 years.
“They are wrong on both counts,” he added, rightly, no doubt amazed at how there were zero shades of grey in summing up her considerable, controversial legacy. It was either hagiography or hatred, reverence or revulsion; no one had an opinion that dares to be anything other than completely immoderate. This is a woman who wasn’t even a woman at all, sourly suggested Glenda Jackson, Labour’s also-ran MP. Baroness Thatcher was the decisive but divisive ‘empress of evil’, but, alas, one elected by the proselyted populace for three successive terms, a feat denied to legendary statesmen Gladstone, Disraeli, Attlee and even Churchill.
The trouble is, such polarising views reinforce the myth of The Iron Lady (of which the titular titan herself was more than capable of perpetuating) – that of the heroine, the harridan, the saviour, the Spitting Image-conscious caricature of Thatcher, without ever acknowledging the reality is a helluvalot more complex than fans and foes both Left and Right would have you believe. Indeed, with a backdrop of some rather distasteful reactions to the death of an elderly widow, mother and grandmother who lost office almost a quarter of a century ago, those judgements intensified. She either saved or destroyed Britain. Whatever your views, it’s impossible to be neutral about her.
And so Margaret Thatcher was a woman that continues to provoke massively contrasting opinions, and not least her own. For instance, whilst she cultivated an often cold and calculating, imperious public persona (contentious not consensus was the order of the day), in private this often cautious, diffident pragmatist could be capable of disarming kindness and generosity – even personally writing out cheques to struggling neighbours and constituents. The same woman who came across as the haughty and hectoring Mother Hen – always jolly cross at the British people unless they worked bloody hard, saved even harder and stood on their own two feet – but was also a doting parent to twins Carol and Mark, the latter amusingly described by the former as having “never done a day’s work in his life.”
This was a woman who was loudly condemned for letting IRA hunger strikers in Ireland’s Maze prison starve to death (“We will not negotiate with terrorists”), while at the same time authorising secret channels of communication with the same Republican movement; who denounced the ANC as a terrorist organisation – which, to be fair, they certainly had been (and were continuing to be by threatening to bomb British business interests in retaliation for her lukewarm enthusiasm for sanctions against South Africa), but also privately lobbied President de Klerk to release Nelson Mandela. The patronising patriot who stands accused of being a brusque, bloodthirsty warmonger who rejoiced in death, and yet presided over us for 11 and a half years without the UK invading a foreign territory: Thatcher 0, Blair 5.
This was the same woman who was a life-long Conservative but had an almost pathological aversion to the status quo – she the receiver of elocution lessons and a executive husband, but also the one who did more than any other politician to hack away at the class system by being more anti-establishment than all of the many opposition leaders she defeated put together; the seismic she-devil who ‘destroyed the miners’ when even arch nemesis Neil Kinnock (whose Labour party had closed more pits than she ever did) lays the blame squarely at union leader Arthur Scargill; ‘squandered North Sea Oil’ when in fact previous Labour administrations as far back as the 1960s failed to tap it for full potential, and, most unforgivable of all, was apparently ‘all for the rich’ and yet it was in fact the aspirational working classes that sustained her in power and decimated the opposition.
This being the same woman who was such a steadfast and staunch defender of freedom and liberty, who signed the Single European Act but just four years later was straitjacketed into enforced retirement by her own ungrateful party because of her increasingly anti-EU views.
And of the indelible mark on the world left by this contradictory colossus? “It’s interesting what the Reagan and Thatcher years did to our nations – a certain kind of acceptability for acquiring things,” reckons Brixton-born David Bowie. “It’s left a yuppie disposition over everybody and everything. You see it with Robbie Williams – the ‘I’ve made good’ kind of thing is really popular in Britain. He’s a working class lad who’s made a lot of money, so it’s very acceptable to be a success.”
Margaret Thatcher wasn’t always acceptable, wasn’t always a success. But she irrevocably changed the country she loved like a veritable one-woman tsunami. Not one of the Iron Lady’s successors has had the courage, that extraordinary lioness-like strength she had in spades, to reverse any of her major achievements. She was never being boring, never bored, never ignored, and most importantly, she was the best man for the job.
The author of this article has never voted Conservative.