Margaret Thatcher died this week. I think in America (if my boyfriend’s thoughts on the matter are any indication) people have a pretty strange idea about who she was and what she did. Probably because of all those pictures of her slow dancing with Ronald Reagan. Regardless of your politics, anyone who knows anything about her and the way she led the country, her party, or her family knows she was divisive, controversial, and should never be described as ‘a nice lady’. So before you’re swept up in the idea that those Reagan pictures accurately portrayed her as a leader, here’s a little primer on who she really was and how she is seen in the eyes of Brits. Of course, I can’t claim the knowledge of someone who lived in the UK in the ’80s, so undoubtedly I won’t get it all right, but I did do a report on her at university, so that makes me practically an expert. Who am I kidding, that literally makes me an expert. All knowledge gleaned from Elvis Costello or Morrissey songs is just icing on my expert cake.
She grew up in a middle-class household, the daughter of a grocer. This middle class background may not seem a big deal to Americans and to younger people in particular, but it should be pointed out that Britain was at this point still in the habit of picking Prime Ministers from the House of Lords–picking their leaders from people who got their place in government by birth. Not often, but they still did it in the 20th century (Churchill, Douglas-Home). A class system was very much still in place. This middle-class background of Thatcher’s was a serious point for or against her, depending on who you asked. It was something unique about her, that’s for sure, especially as a Conservative.
She worked hard in school, went off to Oxford in 1943 and studied Chemistry. During university, she was active in Conservative politics on campus and also read extensively on economics. She stood for her first political post only 4 years after graduating from Oxford, and before she married Denis Thatcher. Fun fact–she worked as a research chemist for a food corporation that made soft-serve ice cream.
She stood for office as a Conservative two times, and lost both times. She married Denis and studied to be a barrister (re: lawyer). She specialized in tax law.
A note to Americans–the election system in the UK doesn’t require you to live in the place you are going to represent. So when Thatcher kept being defeated in elections, she looked for a Conservative district where she could run. She found one, and was elected as an MP in 1958.
She worked her way up the ranks to obtain a Cabinet position under Conservative PM Heath in 1970. She was the Secretary for Education and Science. This post brought her unwanted notoriety when, in an attempt to cut education costs, the government cut a free milk program for school children. After that date, she was vilified as ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’.
People were not happy about this. Perhaps the saddest part about this story is that Cabinet meeting documents available now reveal she was against the decision. When the Cabinet goes into their conference room, they can say whatever they like, but once a decision is made the members are expected to stand by whatever the majority has determined. So she got absolutely speared for a policy she didn’t favor.
The Conservative party was in shambles in the late ’70s, and (rather shockingly to be honest) Thatcher wound up as their leader. In the next election, they won, and the UK had its first female PM. What followed were a few short lived periods of popularity, but mostly an extremely unhappy British public. Perhaps the most infuriating part of her was that she really didn’t care whether the public approved of her or not.
So what do people like about her?
Not single-handedly, as this picture might suggest, but she did take a risk and bring about a decisive victory.
2. She cut back extensively on government spending–except for defense and police.
3. She believed that people should make their own way through hard work, and that they should not rely on their government for handouts. She valued the individual more than any group, including unions, the church, her own party.
4. As a Middle Class woman leading the Conservative party, she silenced any complaints from liberals that the Tories were just privileged rich old men, all from the same families and same places. It’s the same effect a black Republican leader from a poor family might have on American politics–hard to argue that their party is discriminatory if they had a leader so outside the stereotypical image of their membership.
5. She was tough and extremely aggressive, but also a ‘lady’.
The sort of people who love Thatcher will always look like Uncle Vernon in my eyes. I would guess he adored her.
Why do people hate her?
Basically, they hate her for those same reasons.
1. The military ‘victory’ in the Falkland Islands was…questionable at best. It is absolutely true that the Argentine government invaded the British-held territory in the South Atlantic. On the other hand, the Argentinians argue that the islands have belonged to them since the 19th century. I’m not a history expert, so I’m not going there. I think the reason people were so angry after the war is because of a few factors:
- -the success of this war was almost the sole reason Thatcher got re-elected to a second term as PM. The election took place when everyone was feeling patriotic and proud, and they rallied behind the PM, despite the fact that things were in the toilet domestically.
- -the war showed a particularly unflattering xenophobia (also reflected in Thatcher & Co’s treatment of Ireland and S. Africa at the time) and jingoism in the British government and people. Thatcher was particularly adamant that everyone celebrate their great victory in restoring this completely insignificant, nearly uninhabited island group to the glorious empire. She literally urged them to ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’
- -the way the war was conducted did not ascribe to the all-important notion of British fair play (even in war). Particularly with regards to the sinking of an Argentine boat called the General Belgrano. The boat seemed to be retreating and heading back to Argentina when it was torpedoed and sunk. 360 people died. Not good form.
2. When I say she cut back on spending, I mean she wanted to eliminate almost all government spending. She privatized industry, she cut back on government programs. People were terrified and infuriated that she might cut the NHS, but she seemed to know that it would be political suicide if she did. Unemployment skyrocketed in her first few years in office, as did inflation. There were quite simply no jobs, and everything cost twice as much as it used to. It would have been a pretty terrible time to live in the UK. Everyone begged her to change her policies, turn things around, but she replied that she was ‘not for turning’. Everyone suffering because of her decisions was just meant to trust that she knew best, I guess. Things recovered briefly in the ’80s, but (just like in America) wealth was incredibly unequal. The top 5% of earners made the top 25% of the money. Those numbers were nearly reversed for the destitute. It was not a good economic time, unless you were already super wealthy.
3. I’m going to be fair and say that the unions at the time were too powerful, and someone had to eventually take them on. On the other hand, Thatcher’s way of dealing with everyone involved complete alienation. The unions were more or less decimated in the first few years of her premiership. She compared them to the Argentine combatants, calling unions ‘the enemy within’.
She cut people from her Cabinet, she cut government positions that she didn’t think were necessary. She cut funding to universities. She ridiculed the church openly and publicly. She was rude and aggressively disrespectful to the people, to the MPs, to her own Cabinet. She ruled as a despot, not as a democratically elected individual. If you weren’t ‘one of us’, meaning you did not agree with nearly everything she believed, then you usually were mistreated and would probably end up being sacked or resigning.
4. Yep, she was from the Middle Class. A middle class woman who stood up and defended the rights of the super wealthy over the rights of anyone else. She surrounded herself with entrepreneurs and businessmen, and proceeded to trod on the poor and destitute. It’s a worse betrayal than when an upper-crusty Lord does the exact same thing, because she should have known better.
5. This last one is perhaps the most irritating to me. Feminists should be happy about a woman being in power, yes? I’m a feminist, but man did I hate her methods. This cartoon sort of sums it up.
She was rude, aggressive, disrespectful to even people in her own Cabinet and to her closest advisers. But she would play the female card in expecting perfectly gentlemanly behavior from them. I hate that. For more on why she was the worst feminist ever, see this article (complete with Liz Lemon gifs).
The bottom line about Thatcher is that she treated the citizens of the UK like naughty schoolboys, and believed that a proper spanking was the only thing that could get them back on track. People who agreed with her (Uncle Vernon did say what was wrong with Harry was ‘nothing a good beating wouldn’t have cured’) thought this was exactly what the country needed, and applauded her for it. People who disagreed with her, or didn’t think her disrespectful tactics were helpful, loathed her.
Her least popular policies (other than the milk snatching debacle) included the riot-inducing poll tax (Community Charge), a general disregard for all of the UK that did not exist in the 100 miles surrounding London, she refused to place sanctions on apartheid South Africa (even befriending the Premier of that government), and every policy that involved cutting funding to government programs (not just welfare programs, but education, infrastructure, industry). I’m certain I’m missing lots of policies that were incredibly unpopular, but I think she will be remembered for her ‘style’ of leadership that was really just…confrontational at best.
I’m not an expert, despite earlier claims. Anyone who grew up in the UK at that time would know more about this than I do, but I’m hoping this is enough information that people from the US won’t just think of her as that nice lady that danced with Ronald Reagan. On the other hand, people in the US think Ronald Reagan was a good president, so they’re obviously not listening to me anyway! Americans should, at the very least, be aware that she is not universally loved. These are two newspaper covers published the day after her death: