In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony is only allowed to take the tribune to deliver the funeral oration for the recently-murdered emperor, because it is believed he will attack Caesar’s achievements and besmirch his memory, so justifying the killing. In fact, Mark Anthony’s oratory reverses the situation when he praises the dead emperor, and this inflames the mob into civil rage against Caesar’s killers — thereby hoisting Mark Anthony into a power-sharing agreement in ancient Rome.
It seems much the same has been going on since the death of Margaret Thatcher. While alive, she famously said “there is no such thing as society.” Now dead, society can say “there is no such thing as Margaret Thatcher.” And yet, there plainly is. The quasi-state funeral held 17th April attracted jeers and tears, as well as leaders from around the world.
Both sides of the political aisle continue fighting for a piece of the legacy of this most divisive of all Anglo-Saxon politicians. Like any seminal figure, she has been both lionised and cast as the devil incarnate.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Like any Brit born in the mid 50s, her time and mine coincided. When they say Britain was a dump before she came to power, they were absolutely right: I left university in 1976 and the place was in ruins. I’m old enough to remember the tweedy, patrician noodle-headedness of Sir Alec Douglas Home and the Tories who preceded Margaret Thatcher. Ted Heath was a dolt and she was right to slide a dagger into his ribs just as Brutus had done with Julius Caesar (and later on, just as Geoffrey Howe would do with her). I headed out to East Asia three years before she came to power in 1979.
But I was back just after she came to power. I stayed until January 1982, working the London journalism beat, which meant I had a ringside seat at some of the most abrasive struggles of her early years. It was huge fun.
I watched the Molotov cocktails being lit on the Railton Road at the Brixton Riots; I interviewed the “Women at the Wire” at Greenham Common protesting at the installation of cruise missiles to oppose the Soviets’ SS20s.
I covered the Northern Ireland struggle and the Bobby Sands hunger strike, leading to his death.
I watched her dodge a full-on conflict with Britain’s coal miners (that was to come later, when she had more power). While at the BBC, I saw Britain’s cosy arms sales to the Shah hit the fan when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran.
I was on the Afghan border at the Khyber Pass when the Mujihadeen began battling the Soviet Empire in Kabul. I was in Washington at the Republican HQ in November 1980, the night Ronald Reagan got elected and the “special relationship” with Maggie came alive.
But at the beginning of 1982 I bailed out and went to South America, thinking I would be far away from her influence. What a joke. The Falklands war soon caught up with me. In fact, I stayed away from the UK until 1991, so I missed the most abrasive period of the Poll Tax riots, the Miners’ Strike, and, of course, the fights over Europe and the “Cheque Britanique” or EU financial rebate that she won in her handbag-winging battles with Brussels patriarch Jacques Delors.
The truth is that this period was richer, more vibrant, more creative and more filled with strong emotions than today. Heroine or hate figure, Margaret Thatcher bestrode the world of my early 30s like a Colossus. I was against her. I never met her, although I did come across a couple of her ministers, and bumped into Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, at the urinals one evening where we exchanged a brief but acerbic conversation.
Friends of mine who interviewed her, confessed to an almost sexual thrill in the contact. One reporter was a bit drunk. She turned off the tape recorder when she’d finished and put it into his pocket after his time was done, making certain she would get her precious airtime.
Around me there was post-Punk, New Romantics, Bowie, a plethora of creative urges and surges that make today’s self-referential, galerista-driven art productions and auditorium TV show wannabes look like what they are — a crude form of ‘me capitalism’ that would have given Thackeray a nose-bleed.
Once I had dinner in a private room at Rules, a traditional London restaurant where the Thatcher Cabinet would also have its private political dinners. There was a sideboard upon which stood an array of single malt whisky bottles, each with a label for its presiding (male) cabinet minister. In the middle stood a single decanter, with a Victorian silver label around its neck. Upon it was engraved in italic letters: “Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher MP, Mother of the Nation.” That about said it all. Downstairs, the decor still reflects the Thatcher era.
And today I recognise she was great. That recitation of the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi on the doorstep of Downing Street on the morning in 1979 that she took office was a masterstroke (even though her eye strayed downward to consulted her notes and she still got it wrong).
Thatcher was played many times on stage and on screen — most lately by Meryl Streep. The portrait of a has-been ravaged by Alzheimers was moving, although this was hardly a definitive political study. Most memorable for me, however, was the speech on character and destiny. Maggie certainly had character, and she used it to shape collective destinies.
What was greatest of all about Margaret Thatcher, however, was her ability to make large sections of the population of Britain suspend their disbelief. She made us feel good, even when there were scant reasons to be in such a state. She raised our spirits with magnificent gestures we have spent over a quarter of a century paying for.
I did write a blog in 2012 about the way in which Thatcher’s economic guru — the combative refugee Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek who was taken in by Britain when he fled Hitler’s growing political turmoil — would by now have been either forgotten or discredited if Thatcher had not lionised the (then obscure) academic in parliament. She used him as a brush to sweep away lingering ideological homage to John Maynard Keynes, In fact, the battle between these two long-dead economists is far from over and still dominates the economic stage. Had Thatcher not championed Hayek, the world would be a different place.
Let’s not forget that in cold, macro-economic terms, Thatcherism was completely loopy doctrine. Converting Britain’s North Sea petrodollars and privatisation receipts into unemployment benefits as the coal-mines and factories were closed down, might have delivered a political victory. But economically, it was a zero-sum game that saw Britain squander somewhere in excess of £150 billion on — well, on nothing really. In the name of political principle, a substantial part of the nation’s productive capacity was rendered unproductive. Viewed through the contemporary lens of sustainability or resource optimisation, it was bonkers.
But in the end, it was worth it because the exercise worked as a confidence trick, and the capitalist and shopkeeper classes felt unshackled and free get their mojo working again. That these favoured citizens never quite got around paying enough taxes on their new wealth to balance the budget and make the whole transformation worthwhile, was evidenced by the fact that state spending continued to rise under Thatcherism. But, like any good card trick, it garnered the oohs and aahs.
For the truth is that in war (and this was the most exciting war of ideas we had had in a generation) the truth is the first casualty. Thatcher’s regime was in many ways not radical at all: she didn’t shrink the state; she only took on trade unions when she was sure of victory; her privatisation and capital markets deregulation was the grandfather and mother of today’s global crisis of Capitalism. Until hubris got to her, she was cautious and canny.
But none of this matters, She was great — and nowhere more than in my own adopted backyard, Latin America. Her brisk ouster of Gen. Galtieri through the Falklands War began the great domino process that has benefitted hundreds of millions of people. Out of this evil, came much, much good. There, I’ve said it.
She helped clear out the noxious military dictatorships. First went Argentina; then Paraguay, Brazil, even Chile (despite her friendship with Pinochet). Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay. With a little poetic licence you could add Somoza, Noriega, and a handful of Central American hoodlums.
As a boy around in 1970, I was driven along the Iron Curtain in (then) West Germany. I was told, and believed, it would remain an immovable barrier through my lifetime. It all changed, in part because Margaret Thatcher later embraced, turned, and ultimately helped to disempower Mikhail Gorbachev. If Latin Americans owe her a debt of gratitude, so too do Eastern Europeans, freed from the yoke of Communism.
If you like, Margaret Thatcher was the ultimate Machiavellian: the ends that she achieved justified the means she deployed.
So, just like Mark Anthony, I climbed the steps of the tribune to damn Thatcher, yet I find that I can do no more than praise her as a transformative force in the years that I lived through. I must end by praising her as a polemicist, a warrior, an orator, and above all a personality who could communicate with true charisma.
Maggie is dead, and I’m glad to say that I was alive when she was in power. She might not have been right even sometimes, but I believed she hugely enriched our times. To say otherwise would be mean-minded and untruthful. I salute her.