Monday, April 8, 2013

The Iron Lady has rusted away...

...rather literally and sadly given the multiple health challenges of her last decade. Lady Thatcher, possibly the most influential (for good or ill) British Prime Minister of the Twentieth century, has died today at the age of 87.

Looking at the comment streams in varied places, we can rest assured that she remains to the end, and beyond, a highly divisive figure about whom it will take a long time to come to settled conclusions (if ever).

The first election campaign in which I took an active part (though did not vote, as I was too young) was the 1979 election that brought the then Mrs Thatcher to power. I was a gopher for the Liberal Party campaign in the safe Conservative constituency in which I was born. I addressed a great many envelopes in my Easter holiday and was much too timid to go out on the stump. We came a creditable but distant second!

Needless to say I was not an admirer but I cannot bring myself to the level of visceral vitriol that some of my friends preserve for her.

There was something peculiarly hidebound and sclerotic about late 70s Britain that needed reform and re-energising but Mrs Thatcher form of renewed confrontation (from the right, replacing that from the left) was not the apposite medicine.

Some things that were done domestically were necessary (and even admirable) and led to significant improvements, not least, for example, the privatisation of the telecom industry and possibly the extension of home ownership (though the failure to use the receipts to build more social housing was a grave mistake). Some things that were done globally were equally admirable not least the confrontation with a disintegrating Soviet Union and the co-operation with its mostly peaceful disassembly in Eastern Europe; others were the shadow side of this - the support for Pinochet and the hostility to the African National Congress and support for apartheid South Africa.

But oddly maybe her most paradoxical legacy is in the City of London. She abhorred the idea of a national lottery (introduced by her successor, John Major) because it fostered an attitude of getting something for nothing and yet through the 'Big Bang' reforms of the City laid the foundations for a financial system that is remarkably akin to a casino where getting something for nothing is every bit a modus operandi!

She often behaved as an economic liberal, sometimes she would have been helped by being more, not less, conservative.

For the failure of her legacy was precisely this inability to help establish a national consensus - a sense of identity that has shared economic and social roots. She found a country divided against itself, class bound and uncomfortable, and she left it in a similar state - and that sense of not being 'one nation' is with us still. Mr Blair pretended it did n't matter, Mr Cameron unconvincingly pretends 'we are all in it together'.

We are not - we are now one of the most unequal societies in Europe and there is a great prize for a political leadership that addresses this.

P.S. In passing I note (on the day after) the right wing press being scandalised by the hostility accorded her passing by some as if in death a public figure should only be treated to hagiography, anything less is being disrespectful to private grief. Frankly death should be met only by honesty - whatever form that takes - and in the case of Baroness Thatcher that will take myriad forms!

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