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Margaret Thatcher’s complicated legacy

Updated

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died Monday at 87 and there is an understandable instinct to be charitable upon someone’s death.

But the death of public figures is an incredibly important occasion to wrestle with their legacy. And the wrong message can be massively destructive. The perception of someone’s legacy, has consequences, because it establishes what the consensus position is. What we’ve all learned from the person’s life.

President Obama’s statement read in part, “…the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend. As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered. And yet according to a former advisor, Thatcher herself said, “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison.”

Now if Thatcher was known for anything in her amazing career on the world stage it was pulling no punches, and out of deference to that legacy we should pull none ourselves. Here are just some of the hallmarks of Margaret Thatcher’s 11 year tenure as Britain’s Prime Minister: Thatcher initially opposed economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government and she referred to Nelson Mandela’s “African National Congress” as a “typical terrorist organization.”

When Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested for war crimes, including the widespread catpure, torture and murder of political dissidents, she called for his release… and he eventually served house arrest in London.

On the domestic front, Thatcher’s victory ushered in policies that lowered inflation but sent the unemployment rate past 10% for a grinding, miserable five-and-a-half-years.

As former London Mayor Ken Livingstone put it, “She decided when she wrote off our manufacturing industry that she could live with two or three million unemployed.” Even as the economy improved, it came with immediate and long-term costs. Child poverty rose, with nearly one-third of children living in poverty by the time she left office.

Thatcher’s tax policies shifted the burden from the wealthy to those at the bottom, reaching its most audacious peak with a 1990 poll tax which was so severe on the poor to the benefit of the wealthy, there were widespread riots. It was replaced within a year, after Thatcher’s resignation.

Recent documents show Thatcher was scheming to privatize the national health service, which is a beloved and popular institution that has provided universal health care for Brits regardless of means or class since the end of World War II and may well be one of the great hallmarks of western social democracy…

But: “In the face of popular opposition, she retreated from plans to privatize the water industry and the National Health Service, replace college grants with a student loan program, cut back pensions and revamp the social security system.”

Thatcher supported “Section 28” which said Local authorities shall not “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a *pretended* family relationship”.

Thatcher is often talked about in conjunction with President Ronald Reagan because, as the conservative fairy tale goes, they both came into office during periods of malaise caused by leftist overreach. And they both absolutely eviscerated their left opposition and permanently altered the trajectory of politics in their countries.

Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

But David Hopper, General Secretary of the Durham Miner’s Association, who were resolutely crushed by Thatcher in a series of dramatic and at times violent strikes said, “She destroyed our community, our villages and our people. She absolutely hated working people and I have got very bitter memories of what she did.”

We live now, still today, on the Reagan-Thatcher axis, their legacies reaching forward through the years. In their shared contempt for egalitarianism they both bequeathed massive inequality. Today, decades after they left office, if you compare inequality across industrialized nations, England and the U-S are at the top, also sharing the least amount of social mobility. This is the society that Thatcher and Reagan gave us. Societies of shrinking middle classes and tremendously high levels of inequality. If you do not like that vision, then you have little occasion to celebrate Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher's complicated legacy

Updated