Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister and conservative icon, died at the age of 87 last week from a stroke and will buried today after a ceremonial funeral with full military honors at St. Paul’s Cathedral. As one of the 20th century’s most important leaders, her tenure will be examined by devotees and critics for years to come for several reasons.
1. Force of character
If you can say anything about Thatcher’s personality it’s that she played you straight. She was vocal in her beliefs that Britain was in decline and she knew the way out, fought for them, and persisted in the force of withering criticism from inside the party and resistance from the outside. Known by two phrases — “the Iron Lady” and “You turn [U-turn] if you want to. The lady's not for turning" — Thatcher was a conviction politician par excellence who craved respect over likability. In the field of international affairs, debate often rages over whether individuals, governments, or macro forces have a bigger impact determining world events and in Thatcher's case the it was definitely the former.
This is even more remarkable considering how she worked in a parliamentary list system rather than a geographic-based system like in the U.S. In the U.S., young and dynamic leaders can build a local following, take on the party establishment, and quickly assume leadership if they are skillful enough and catch the national mood. In Britain and most parliamentary systems, however, you cannot run for office unless the party elders put you on the party’s electoral list first. If a party is lucky and wins a lot of seats, it then allocates its seats to candidates on the list in numerical order. You need to seen by party members as a true blue activist in order to be put high enough on the list to guarantee a seat, a process that selects for older, establishment leaders who’ve climbed the hierarchy without rocking the boat. The fact that Thatcher was able to hold onto her beliefs as long as she did and attain leadership is truly a testament to her grit and conviction, virtues everyone can admire.
2. Demonstrating the power of markets and deregulation
By the late 1970’s, the United Kingdom was in a state of decline from economic mismanagement. The boom years that everyone expected after WW2 never fully arrived and after several decades the nation had fallen behind the rest of the world. As British-born blogger Andrew Sullivan said of the time:
"...in the 1970s, you could not help but realize as a young Brit, that you were living in a decaying museum — some horrifying mixture of Eastern European grimness surrounded by the sculptured bric-a-brac of statues and buildings and edifices that spoke of an empire on which the sun had once never set. Now, in contrast, we lived on the dark side of the moon and it was made up of damp, slowly degrading concrete."
Thatcher refused to accept the situation and enacted free-market reforms widely viewed by many in the country as unacceptably radical. Moreover, she did it so thoroughly that it forced a battle between types of economic governance, statism vs. privatization, that no one could ignore. The success of the latter, especially at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing, led to the reevaluation of economic dogma worldwide and the broad acceptance of free market principles. She laid the groundwork that made Britain prosperous again and one of the foremost countries in Europe. Thatcher gambled big and won big.
3. Being Britain’s first female Prime Minister
To say that Thatcher’s legacy of being the United Kingdom’s first female Prime Minister is mixed would be putting it gently. Because she didn’t propound upon the traditional causes of Second Wave feminism her example is often spurned by many women, who claim she never argued for women’s rights or fought the patriarchy and that her economic policies hurt too many wives whose husbands were thrown out of the job. Many claim she was a man in a dress.
Yet this argument both ignores the times when she did argue for women’s emancipation from domestic expectations and the power of her personal example, to be both a woman unafraid of her gender and unafraid of being disliked for what she was. No one else could have coined the phrase “handbagging” as a substitute for “kicking a** and taking names.” She was a woman who did “have it all” — a loving husband, the kids, and a high-powered career — and made it work. Such an example is priceless and provides encouragement to women everywhere that even they can do incredible things if they work for it. Those actions may be in directions that other women find objectionable, but a feminism that seeks to limit women’s freedom of choice, either in belief or in behavior, is a strange feminism indeed.
4. Crushing unions
Of course, one can’t talk about Thatcher’s influence on global capitalism without also talking about how she handled her country’s powerful unions. Created in response to the ruthless exploitation of workers by employers, by the 1970’s unions had ground economic life in England to a halt, with strikes costing nearly 13 million working days a year and businesses hobbled by restrictive labor laws. Previous Prime Ministers had attempted to resolve the situation, but buckled in the face of their resistance and were forced out of office again and again. Thatcher finally put her foot down and in the beginning of her second term in office and took on the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), outlasting a year-long strike before the union coalition fell apart and was forced to concede without a deal.
This jolted the entire world out of its slumber. Every nation was and currently is plagued by special interest groups that drag the rest of the country down; few actually succeed to defeating them (just ask Sarzkozy). After the strike was defeated, reformers throughout the world took heart that they don’t need to tolerate such intransigence and will be rewarded if they do so.
5. Victory over Argentina
For decades since WW2 the United Kingdom had been in constant retreat and growing ever weaker. With the end of imperialism and the country’s continuing economic problems, it had developed a reputation of retreating at the first sign of resistance and was no longer considered by any power, small or great, as a nation worthy of respect. Faced with its own internal problems, Argentina’s ruling junta gambled that they too could get away with threatening the UK as well by invading the Falklands, only to discover that they’re opponent just so happened to be the only British leader who’d never back down. Criticizing past failures, Thatcher told her people that they could choose to be great again so long as they fought for it and waged a successful counter-invasion that even the U.S. regarded as a “military impossibility,” given that British forces were outnumbered over 2:1 in the air and had little anti-aircraft defense. The victory gave her a much needed boost at home and raised British morale at a time when there was little to be happy about.
The war has been further vindicated as the years have gone by, as locals voted 99.8% to remain with the UK in a recent referendum. The event also helped define small sub field of political science by providing a paradigmatic case for one of its subjects, the use of war as a diversionary tactic.
Thatcher’s contribution to the United Kingdom and the world — economic prosperity, political ingenuity, her character and personal example — were all exceptional and infinitely beyond what anyone expected of a grocer’s daughter. She truly earned the title of “the Iron Lady,” and the debate over what her leadership meant, controversial before her death, will rage long after.