It is hard to think of a more divisive figure in British politics than Margaret Thatcher — at least since the days of the predecessor whom she most admired, the early 19th-century prime minister Lord Liverpool.
The high point of Liverpool’s term (1812 to 1827) was the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo; its low point was quickly dubbed Peterloo, the occasion on which British soldiers used their sabers and muskets to disperse workers rallying for better wages, labor conditions and suffrage at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester in 1819.
Mrs. Thatcher’s 11-year tenure had much in common with Liverpool’s, both in its length and its attitudes toward organized labor.
Her admirers laud her for breaking Britain’s once-powerful trade unions, and liberalizing the City of London’s financial services industry; these acts, they say, halted the country’s economic decline. Her detractors blame her for destroying much of the country’s manufacturing base by refusing to aid struggling industries, and effectively annihilating the mining sector by emasculating the National Union of Miners. Her premiership will always be remembered for the bloody battles between workers and the police, and the high unemployment and sudden appearance of industrial wastelands that followed.
If Argentina hadn’t invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, she might not have even won the 1983 election. National pride raised her approval ratings, and the implosion of the opposition Labour Party sustained her party at the polls for nearly another decade.
Mrs. Thatcher’s own downfall was the so-called Poll Tax, a highly unpopular flat-rate levy on every adult, officially known as the Community Charge. The law was passed in 1988 and caused violence in many cities, including the London riot of March 31, 1990, before it was scheduled to take effect. The tax eventually helped precipitate her resignation from the premiership.
Mrs. Thatcher left behind a changed and divided Britain. She dismantled local government structures, leaving London without a unitary authority to manage its affairs, which meant that urban decay and the effects of unemployment were not adequately countered.
Her attitude on how people should live could be described as either Samuel Smiles (“Self-Help”) or Gordon Gekko (“greed… is good”). Despite being a woman who had shattered the political glass ceiling by becoming leader of her party and then prime minister, she did little to advance the cause of women generally, and would not publicly support the feminist movement. She was also unfriendly toward homosexuals, suggesting in her 1987 speech at the Conservative Party Conference that no one had a “right” to be gay.
By the time the Tories were defeated by Tony Blair’s re-branded centrist “new” Labour Party in 1997, she had become a highly toxic liability for Conservatives. The strain of politics she imposed on her own party effectively disabled it for a generation. The Tories now govern again, after more than a decade of Labour Party rule, but only in coalition with a minority party, the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives are unlikely to remain in power after the next election, to be held in 2015 or earlier, because the internal party divisions Mrs. Thatcher bequeathed still exist, especially when it comes to further European centralization and integration — a policy she famously denounced with the words “No. No. No.”
Today, Euroskeptics in Parliament are holding the party leadership hostage; they have extracted a pledge from the prime minister to hold a referendum on continued British membership in the European Union, despite the risk that leaving the union could have disastrous economic consequences.
The curious feature of Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy is that although she struck an ax-blow deep into the heart of Britain, it is society, not the political sphere, that remains deeply divided by a widening gap between rich and poor.
By contrast, the country’s politics have almost ceased to be ideological, as if exhausted by the Thatcher era. All the main British political parties now strive for the center ground, and the differences between them are about managerial style, not questions of principle.
The loss of ideology in British politics is neither good nor bad. It was inevitable when Britain became part of the larger political entity of Europe — a political entity Mrs. Thatcher vehemently disliked — which imposes constraints on how far the ideology of any national party can go.
With her contempt for softhearted liberalism, her hatred of trade unions, and her doctrinaire free-market principles, Mrs. Thatcher’s impact in her own day was huge. And its effects remain.
She began the deregulation of banking that led ultimately to Britain’s contribution to the global financial crisis of 2008. She reversed the trend of greater social integration and diminishing of the wealth gap that had characterized Britain in the three decades after 1945. Postwar convergences in class and wealth disappeared and former divisions resurfaced as consumerism and social incivility followed quickly on her brusque reorganization of British society.
In Britain, that is the chief memory of her that will most likely linger once the obsequies are done.
A. C. Grayling, a philosopher, is the master of the New College of the Humanities and the author, most recently, of The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.