In My Words: In death, Thatcher remains larger than life
A guest newspaper column by Professor Rosemary Haskell reflects on the legacy of Britain's former prime minister.
In death, Margaret Thatcher remains larger than life
By Rosemary Haskell - email@example.com
Our Blessed Margaret. The Leaderene. Tina. That Woman. Maggie. Mrs. T. Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. The Lady Who Was Not For Turning.
These are the terms used mainly by the British to describe the late Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990. Actually, the milk-snatcher taunt goes back to her early parliamentary career when, as Minister for Education, she infamously cut the free 1/3 pint of milk doled out daily to British school children.
And she was, acronymically, Tina, because, when she announced some particularly painful policy, she would say to her unlucky subjects, “There Is No Alternative.” “Iron Lady” seems to have been an American, rather than British, label of awed approbation for this formidable character.
You can tell that none of these terms is wholly, or even partially, complimentary to Thatcher, who was, after all, the first woman political leader of the United Kingdom, or indeed of any big-time European country. She was also everything the Wall Street Journal is now saying about her: trailblazer, superb politician, reviver of the right-wing, friend of Ronald Reagan, hammer of the trades unions, spine-stiffener of President George H.W. Bush, fierce handbagger of the unwary and the unprepared, painful antidote to moribund socialism, and so much more.
I used to be British and cannot help but be taken aback by the huge coverage of the former prime minister’s death in the U.S. media, where almost unqualified admiration seems to be the order of the day.
I, too, have to admire Thatcher for her amazing skill as a politician. You can’t survive for 11 years as Top Person in the snake pit of Westminster without exceptional savoir faire, ruthlessness, dexterity, verbal wit and acute intelligence. Clever, dedicated, hugely hard-working, and with enviably clear-cut values, Thatcher was, for several years, all but unstoppable.
According to the BBC, some people in the United Kingdom did a bit of dancing in the streets when they heard of the old lady’s death. How could they? Well, perhaps because Thatcherism, like its fraternal twin Reaganomics, sometimes involved so much pain: benefit cuts, poll taxes, union-breaking and privatization of sacred-cow government-run entities such as steel, telephones and railways. Not to mention the acceptance of a supposedly necessary poverty.
Plenty of blue-collar men lost their jobs under her rule and never found them again. But those who had jobs, including those in Big-Bang influenced southeast England (after the London Stock Exchange revolution) found themselves lifted on the tide of a new prosperity. Numbers told, and Mrs. T. was “in” for a rather long 11 years.
Her foreign policy, including her well-choreographed win in an old-fashioned imperial war in the Falklands, kept everyone awake. Like President George W. Bush, Thatcher looked into the soul of her Russian (then Soviet) counterpart (not Vladimir Putin, but Mikhail Gorbachev) and decided she had his measure. “I can do business with Mr. Gorbachev,” was her conclusion, and she certainly did.
Like Reagan, Thatcher was in on the end of Soviet-style Communism and basked in the glow of its implosion, then and later. Her Falklands triumphalism made her look like a royal wannabee, and nobody in Britain will forget her appearance at the door of Number 10 proclaiming the South Atlantic “away win” while sporting a very regal hairdo, pearls and handbag. On another occasion: “We are a grandmother,” she announced, after son Mark produced an offspring. (“We?” The “royal” we?)
Ironically, this woman who rivaled royalty in her speech and manner was famously nervous on her obligatory visits to Sandringham and Balmoral for overnight stays with the real queen and her family. According to one biographer, Thatcher would faint with apprehension on these occasions. She also dropped curtsies of a depth and reverence otherwise almost unseen in modern times
Now that Baroness Thatcher has gone, we await her funeral. This week, in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, she will get a send-off just one level down from a full state funeral. She will get the same category of ceremony accorded to the late Princess Diana. She will, however, be denied the funerary honors Winston Churchill was accorded, much to the chagrin of some of her most avid supporters.
Mrs. Thatcher’s passing certainly deserves to be marked by historians, political scientists and, perhaps, by the feminist cultural critics: not that she was a feminist. Her funeral will indeed be a notable event. But there won’t be the fields of flowers and the floods of tears that accompanied the coffin of Princess Diana in 1997. The exit of That (Amazing) Woman arouses far too many mixed feelings for such a display.
Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (firstname.lastname@example.org) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions through the Elon University Writers Syndicate.
Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.