Saturday, April 20, 2013

Margaret Thatcher's long legacy: Part One

The hugely-contrasting reactions to Margaret Thatcher's death tell us so much about the all-too-real legacy that her eleven-and-a-half year premiership has left on the UK. It is difficult to imagine any other PM's death provoking the same joyous reactions in some parts of the country (and some on the political left), as though Thatcher were comparable with a hated dictator.

The fact is that a person's view of Thatcher, and whether they mourned or cheered her death, depends largely on where they are from in the UK; and that tells you what kind of a person Margaret Thatcher was.

Thatcher's was the first female Prime Minister, as well as being one of its longest-serving, winning three elections in a row; she left the UK overall a much richer place than where it was when she began office; she completely changed the way that the UK was ran as a country, as well as its economy; she "won" the Falklands War, and contributed to the end of the Cold War. These points are considered her main achievements by her supporters, though they all paper over the truth: the mess that Britain is in today is also Thatcher's longest legacy of all.

And all of her so-called "achievements" gloss over many ugly truths.

Margaret Thatcher may have been Britain's first female Prime Minister, but she was no "feminist". Yes, by being a woman, in itself this provided a role model for women to aspire to, but she never made a huge point of trying to actively promote equal rights for women in the workplace, or help the lot of stay-at-home mums, beyond standardised political slogans. If anything, her style of running government shows even a distrust towards her own gender, as there were hardly any female ministers in her government; as though she preferred to have no others competing for control of the men under her thumb in government. There are endless anecdotes about her "masculine" and domineering style of government, and how she only emphasized her sexuality when it seemed useful; in every other way, she was a very "unwomanly" kind of female, getting to where she did not because of her gender, but in spite of it. In that way, she may have seen her female identity as something to be borne and mostly brushed under the carpet, only to be spoken of when it was deemed necessary.

Looking at her politics, she was far more of an "individualist" than a "feminist". It seems she thought of herself as an individual above anything else; being female was just a detail. She read Hayek in her formative years, and became an admirer of Ayn Rand's school of thought. In that way, and in her consistent belief in libertarianism, she was a radical compared with her political contemporaries, espousing views on individualism that would have seemed "un-British" to many. This is what made Thatcher unique in Britain; and it was the force of her personality that made her "libertarian revolution" by the ballot box possible. Over in the USA, Reagan followed a similar path, but Thatcher's clarity of thought was more evident: in that way, Thatcher was a "British Ayn Rand", elected to power.

Thatcher's achievement as PM for more than eleven years is a testament to her skills as a politician, but it also should not be forgotten how she stayed in power. In Thatcher's first term in office, she very little that was obviously "revolutionary". She abolished exchange controls (allowing the free movement of money out of the country), and her government's approach to the economy was all about reducing inflation through government cutbacks (where Cameron's current government get their inspiration), which made the economy slide into a deep recession for most Thatcher's first few years in office. Britain in the early eighties was as grim as at any time in the seventies, mostly due to Thatcher's policies, leading her to have to fight to keep her job as leader of her own party against the Conservative "wets", who wanted a more flexible approach to running the economy. This was where her famous phrase "The Lady's Not For Turning" came from.

Thatcher's cutbacks also included the armed forces, leading to choices that meant a reduction in the navy's capabilities in the South Atlantic. The military junta of Argentina then took this as a green light to invade the Falkland Islands.
The Falklands War is seen as one of Thatcher's most glorious moments, but the reality of her conduct paints a very different picture. Apart from her government's naval cutbacks being partially responsible for leaving an open goal for the Argentinian military, Thatcher wavered as what the right reaction would be, even considering bribing the islanders to stay under Argentinian control (although she made public statements suggesting the opposite). Finally, when she decided as PM it would be electoral suicide not to try to reclaim the islands, and looked at a military solution, she was told Britain did not even have enough aircraft support for such a long-distance operation. Regardless of this, Thatcher's mind seemed made up on the war, and her government sent troops to the Falklands, not knowing if they had enough aircraft to protect their own troops.

The sinking of the General Belgrano was the most controversial moment of the war; by this point of the war, Thatcher's decision-making process was very quick, and it is during the Falklands War that Thatcher seems to have become famous for her sharp decisions, not wanting to linger on the detail like some of her contemporaries. It was this "quick decision" by Thatcher over the General Belgrano that resulted in the Argeninians returning in kind, sinking the HMS Sheffield shortly afterwards. Although there were legitimate military reasons for targeting the General Belgrano, the problem for Thatcher was that the ship was moving away from the zone of conflict and outside of Britain's own self-declared "exclusion zone" around the Falkland Islands. This made the sinking look opportunistic, and a ruthless execution of military power to display intent. In this, it certainly had the effect intended, as the Argentinian navy returned to port. In another sense though, for many British people who heard of the circumstances behind the sinking, it seemed an "un-British" way to behave - breaking your own rules and shooting someone in the back. But it also has the political effect of bolstering Thatcher's "strong" image even further.

In the event, the Falklands War was won through pure luck and determination by the troops themselves. The lack of British aircraft effectively doomed more than two hundred soldiers to their deaths, as ships were at times defenceless against Argentinian air attacks. At the crucial landing zone for the troops, it was pure luck that meant that their ships were not all sunk; if a few more Argentinian bombs had been successful, the Falklands War would probably have gone down as one of Britain's greatest military blunders and disasters.
It is for this reason why Thatcher's admiration from those who praise her conduct in the Falklands seems cruelly misplaced.
Apart from deciding to send soldiers to war without proper air support, it is difficult to say how Thatcher made a significant contribution to the success or failure of that conflict. The fact that she was then able to use her military conduct as a tool for re-election, is even more sickening.

The Falklands War also coincided with the economy finally showing signs of improvement, which allowed her to win a second term in office, and begin her "revolution" in earnest. And it is Thatcher's "revolution" that is her real legacy.

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