Iron Lady's legacy won't rust in peace

Published: Monday | April 15, 2013 Comments 0

By John Rapley

Britain will this week bury Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who transformed her country, for better or worse.

Opinion polarises about the woman the Soviet press famously dubbed the 'Iron Lady'. On the Right, she is celebrated as the woman who took down the unions, breathed life into a moribund public sector, reinvigorated the economy and thus rescued Britain from her post-imperial descent into ignominy. On the Left, she is reviled as the person who shattered Britain's post-war social consensus, divided the society, injected ruthless competition into the economy and destroyed its manufacturing sector.

The funny thing is, they're both right. Britain in the 1970s was a decaying society. I recall underground stations that looked like World War II bomb shelters, with sooty walls dimly lit by dangling light bulbs. You waited months to get a phone installed. You could go without electricity for hours at a time. And when the unions decided to go out on strike, the garbage would pile up for days.

If Thatcher hadn't come along to break up the unions, someone else would have. Whatever their roots in a collective struggle for popular emancipation, the unions had themselves become guild-like extortionists, more concerned with defending privilege than with building a New Jerusalem. The tragedy for Britain's social cohesion is that it took the Thatcherite revolution before the Left realised this.

ECONOMIC REVIVAL

By then, arguably, it was too late. The Blairism that ended the Labour Party's ossified politics was little more than Thatcherism with better style. Meanwhile, though it broke up the traditional mining and manufacturing sectors, Thatcherism did lead to a revival in the service economy, in no small part because of the rise of London as a global financial centre.

But this, we have since discovered, was a high price to pay. Global finance turned out to be a casino, one which drew Britain into its dangerous ride. Meanwhile, manufacturing, which in other European countries, notably Germany, went through something of a renaissance, continued its slow decline. When finance imploded, Britain had little other than North Sea oil to pick up the slack.

And so the country struggles on today - economically stagnant, socially divided, and with a slowly swelling militancy working its way into politics. Is Thatcher to blame for this? No more than an entire generation of political leaders who have lacked the vision of how Britain could better manage the inevitable relative decline of a once-great empire.

And if there's one thing the Left can't deny, it's that it has yet to produce a leader of similar impact. Say what you will about Margaret Thatcher, but she was bold and courageous. Her vision may have been one which many of us found odious, but she held to it. Her ideology was hardly the sort of thing a bunch of focus-grouping consultants would have decided. That sterile version of politics, so beloved by her successors on both the Right and Left, was not one for which she would have had much time.

FUNERAL FUSS

The government will be according her a ceremonial funeral, which is one notch below the state funerals normally reserved for deceased monarchs. Yet, as one columnist in a conservative paper lamented, to just about anyone who isn't a protocol nerd, it will look and feel like a state funeral. The opposition leader, Ed Miliband, has chosen not to make an issue of this, not wanting to play politics.

But it looks a bit like some of Margaret Thatcher's legion of fans in the governing Conservative Party are going to try to score political points. She may not have been a good leader, but she was a great one, in that her impact was profound and enduring. But because she left a legacy of deep division in Britain, the funeral celebrations will not unite a country, as ceremonial occasions should.

Margaret Thatcher deserves a dignified burial, and our great respect. Beyond that, she should be treated as an ordinary citizen, albeit one who did extraordinary things.

John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jr603@cam.ac.uk.

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