Margaret Hilda Thatcher, 1925 – 2013
Margaret Thatcher’s death has brought about an extraordinary reaction around the world. To many people, particularly those whose self-interest coincided with the policies she espoused, she was a saint. To the rest of us she was a monster.
I was often bullied as a child — I was skinny, not physically strong and I had next to no fighting skills. So ever since I have been alert to bullying in all its forms whenever I see it, and Margaret Thatcher was a bully. She bullied her colleagues, she bullied the journalists of the time and she bullied the British people.
She opposed the sanctions program against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and in an era when recognition of gay and lesbian equality was generally advancing, her government brought in the vicious and nasty Section 28, ordering gay and lesbian teachers to remain in the closet or risk losing their jobs.
She reportedly referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist — and I think I know which of the two, her or Mandela, history will judge more kindly — and she supported the Pol Pot government in Cambodia.
She was a throwback to an earlier era, and was totally lacking in the humanising characteristics of humour, reflection and self-doubt.
Margaret Thatcher claimed to be a supporter of capitalism, but she utterly failed to understand how capitalism has evolved over the years. Unfettered capitalism leads ultimately to the concentration of economic power in a very small number of hands, and monopolies destroy the competitive forces that lead to further innovation. At the other end of the scale, the creation of a vast underclass of exploited and impoverished workers is not acceptable even to those who don’t find themselves in that horrible state. So over the centuries capitalism has developed controls on the concentration of monopoly power, and at the same time, has created protections for those who through no fault of their own find themselves with little bargaining power in the employment relationship.
Thatcher was blind to all of this. She declared the trade union movement to be the enemy, vowed to crush them and was to a large extent successful. At the same time, she espoused “small government”, ignoring the fact that the various legislative protections — social safety net, consumer rights etc.— are essential to the working of a modern capitalist society.
But this was typical of the woman. Her view of capitalism owed more to the eighteenth century than the twentieth, and even there she was blindly selective. She would quote Adam Smith, but conveniently overlook the fact that he profoundly believed in limits on division of labour and on the accumulation of monopoly power.
Governing a country is an extraordinarily difficult task — there are a multitude of conflicting issues to take into account, and a vast number of concerns to balance when deciding on a policy direction. Margaret Thatcher never did any of that. Whether through inability, callousness or just plain laziness, she never put in the hard work of weighing up all of the complex factors surrounding any particular policy area. She just assumed that her simplistic gut instinct was correct, and proceeded down that path without a thought for the consequences.
This is most evident in her pursuit of the so-called “Poll Tax”. A careful examination of the effects of this initiative would have led a more conscientious leader to realise that it would be deeply unfair in its application, and consequently deeply unpopular in the electorate. But careful examination was not Thatcher’s style. She decided her position based on little more than ideology and dogma, and would not tolerate questioning of her judgement even from within her own party. Fortunately, this proved to be a bridge too far and at last her previously-supine cabinet decided they had had enough. Her forced resignation and her tears of self-pity when she was driven away from Downing Street were a small consolation for the millions she had hurt over the previous 11 years.
Ding, Dong …
The reaction of many people in Britain to Thatcher’s death was to recall the song from “The Wizard of Oz”: “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Given the destruction she caused and the personal harm suffered by many under her rule, this seems to me an entirely reasonable response. I wish I had thought of it myself.
And in a delightful display of unorthodox democracy, Thatcher’s opponents have managed to get the song onto the British music charts. Under normal circumstances this would mean that the song is played in full on the BBC Radio 1 chart show, but even if the British Establishment closes ranks to ensure this does not happen, the whole episode has been a small victory for the victims of Thatcherism.
I have no sympathy at all for the suggestion that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Margaret Thatcher was widely hated — with ample justification — while she was alive, and to pretend otherwise when she dies is sheer hypocrisy. She never showed any concern for the feelings of ordinary people in life, so she can not posthumously expect any degree of consideration in death.
But how would I feel if such vitriol were directed at someone I loved, or at least did not particularly oppose? After all, the current Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is often portrayed by her opponents as a witch. And I am no supporter of Gillard, but even I find banners saying “Ditch the Witch” offensive. But there is a qualitative difference in the case of Thatcher — no-one else has caused so much harm to so many people, and no-one else has been so supremely indifferent to the animosity she generated. Even those who loved her need to be reminded just what a monster the woman was.