Business Day

Thatcher’s legacy is a less generous UK society


NEWS of the death of Margaret Thatcher reminded me of a wisecrack made by an iconoclast­ic British jazz trombonist, Paul Rutherford, at a concert in 1998: “If you wanna know whose side God’s on, think about this: John Lennon’s dead, but bleeding Maggie Thatcher’s still alive, isn’t she?”

Such sentiments aside, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer in the small town of Grantham, was destined to be an important historical figure. She was the UK’s first female prime minister and the longest serving Tory premier of the 20th century.

Maggie Roberts earned an Oxford degree in chemistry during the war years and was elected to parliament as Margaret Thatcher by the voters of Finchley, London, in 1959. As a nation, the UK had weathered the lean years of the 1950s thanks to the solidarity inspired by the social democratic policies initiated by Clement Attlee’s Labour government.

The Universal Declaratio­n of Human Rights, initiated by the UK and its wartime allies, establishe­d new human rights norms. Among these was the right to national selfdeterm­ination, leading to the dismemberm­ent of the British empire. Attlee’s government elevated healthcare, education, housing and basic services to recognised human rights. By the mid-1960s, Harold Wilson could quip: “You never had it so good!”

The UK’s lost empire struck back in a host of significan­t ways after 1945. Former colony the US was now the UK’s senior partner in a special relationsh­ip that had evolved since 1918. Thousands of immigrants from the UK’s former colonies on the Indian subcontine­nt, the Caribbean, West Africa and the Antipodes had settled in the UK. It had become a multiracia­l, multicultu­ral cosmopolit­an society whose youth embraced African-American rhythm and blues, dabbled in Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, danced to music from the Caribbean, imitated fashion from around the globe and enjoyed exotic foods.

Finchley, like many postwar suburbs, was populated by the lower middle classes who owed their upward mobility to Labour’s policies. Nonetheles­s, many clung to the conservati­ve values associated with the Protestant ethic. They were not always comfortabl­e with the changes wrought by imperial decline. Their anxieties were captured in that Col Blimpish query: “Does an Englishman throw a beer bottle at a cricket match?!”

Rutherford’s remarks were well taken, because Lennon and Thatcher represente­d two facets of that pluralist community. Unlike Thatcher’s suburbanit­es, that pushy youth from Liverpool who sang of “giving peace a chance”, embodied and gloried in all that.

As a minister in Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) and then as prime minister for three consecutiv­e terms, Thatcher savaged the welfare state. Then she turned on the trade unions, even describing striking miners as “the enemy within”. Her policies were so unpopular that, breaking with longestabl­ished tradition, her alma mater, Oxford, withheld the honorary doctorate it had previously awarded every Oxford alumnus who became prime minister.

South Africans will remember Thatcher for her adamant refusal to take firm action against apartheid. She responded to her critics by casting herself as PW Botha’s “candid friend” who was ready to engage the regime to drop apartheid. To her, the African National Congress was “a typical terrorist organisati­on”. Acting in close co-operation with then president Ronald Reagan of the US, she used the UK’s diplomatic clout to shield the regime from effective internatio­nal action. At the 1985 Commonweal­th Heads of Government Meeting in the Bahamas, she was isolated. Her position was further compounded when the US Congress passed the Comprehens­ive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986. While the National Party grandees welcomed her to receive a doctorate from the Rand Afrikaans University in 1991, she was coldshould­ered by the opponents of apartheid.

Thatcheris­m represente­d a response to the geopolitic­al, social, cultural and demographi­c changes the world experience­d in the second half of the last century. Thatcher had her own moment of imperial glory when she went to war with Argentina in 1982. Her approval of the European Union was always hesitant, tempered by a British chauvinism nurtured on images of Trafalgar, the Khyber Pass, Omdurman and Mafeking. Such euroscepti­cism remains a powerful faction, that Prime Minister David Cameron dare not ignore, within the Tory party.

Thatcheris­m reversed the material gains the UK’s Labour movement had won for the average working Briton. It seriously undermined the political consensus establishe­d by the postwar Labour government and reinserted the ethos of “each man for himself” into social policy. Thatcher’s legacy is a less generous society that makes the weak and poor pay for the crisis of British capitalism.

After her former supporters unseated her in November 1990, she continued being an important public figure. A warm feeling of satisfacti­on came over me as we sat in her offices in London in 1991. The Iron Lady ate her proverbial hat as Thabo Mbeki and I watched her in earnest conversati­on with that “arch-terrorist” Nelson Mandela who, unlike Lennon, has outlived her.

Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.

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