AMONG THE GOOD Riddances this past week were exhibitions of ill grace from British citizens not yet born in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher captured the office of Prime Minister. It happens that 1979 is a year I recall vividly — from the retreat of Pol Pot to the televised campaign ads of former California governor, Ronald Reagan, boasting (ironically, as it would turn out) his reduction of the public debt, to the Iranian hostage crisis. To remember the flavour of those days is to begin the accounting of Thatcher’s political successes.
Britain by the ’70s may have been even further along the path of industrial and economic decline than North America, but in any case one may do worse than to recall President Carter’s “malaise” as a summation of Anglo-American political and cultural exhaustion. To be alive at the end of that decade was to feel the rot in one’s bones. The good jobs were disappearing, and the working class adults had no idea what to do except to keep on fighting, hopelessly it seemed, for the post-1945 gains which were inexorably diminishing beneath one’s feet.
Recall that between 1969 and 1979 we were first introduced to terrorist airplane bombings, the poisoning of mass-produced consumer products (otherwise known as the Tylenol scare) and the likelihood that children might in fact live a “lifestlye” — a ’70s identity politics buzzword — diminished in relation to their parents. With these and other threats the mushy middle-of-the-road consensus was unable to assert what to do. As the borders dissolved and the capital and jobs fled overseas, was there any credible voice on the left advocating a proletarian-led campaign of economic nationalization? And as two-parent families and safe neighbourhoods yielded to increasing occurrences of divorce and gang membership, who on the right had the audacity to step outside the post-war political comfort zone?
The answer, of course, is “Margaret Thatcher,” whose ascendance may be seen also as the ascendance of conviction in politics. When George Harrison excoriated the grasping British treasury, in his 1966 song “Taxman,” he named as his targets Harold Wilson and Edward Heath — a current Labour Prime Minister and a future Conservative one. In other words Thatcher was the enemy of the left, but perhaps more so of the tepid and shilly-shallying middle, of which both the Labour and Conservative parties contributed their share of members.
For this reason both the left and right mis-evaluate her. From the left she is attacked for lacking principle and conscience, and from the right she is revered for never abandoning a position. The record however is far too mixed to slice so tidily. She was emphatically wrong in her callousness toward the 1980-81 hunger strikers — of whom Bobby Sands is the most infamous, but right on the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the refusal to (literally) cede the stage the morning after the 12 October 1984 Brighton Hotel attack. She was correct in the Falklands but repulsively wrong in her support for the P.W. Botha and Pinochet regimes. She was wrong to embrace Milton Friedman, but came soon enough to recognize it, and to change direction. Likewise, she changed her position on the Rhodesia-Zimbabwe question, asserting that “the people of Rhodesia have the right to decide themselves who shall be their govt. and whether they approve the internal settlement.” So much for the recalcitrant Iron Lady.
In a curious way the two-party consensus which preceded Thatcher is now her chief legacy. If her policies — union smashing, a weakening of government and a strengthening of state authority, and privatization — were so wrong and so immoral and so untenable, why then has no politician of standing repudiated them? When the 1989 Community Charge pulled the Conservative Party downward in the polls, the unprincipled opportunists over whom she had triumphed a decade earlier forced her out — but only to be succeeded by Labourative (or is it Conservatour?) leaders who stuck to the business-as-usual approach constituted by her policies. Love her or hate her — a third way, while not impossible, is rarely evidenced — she was a model for everyone who abjures the mushy middle and the politics of poll-watching and hollow opportunism.