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Dunsmore: The Thatcher Legacy


Former American Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker were effusive in their praise for Margaret Thatcher as a great friend of the United States who had helped to bring an end to the Cold War. Historians such as Jon Meacham, last week favorably compared the relationship of President Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher in closeness and importance to that of the wartime friendship of President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Meacham had written of that friendship in his book “Franklin and Winston.”

I thought one of the more perceptive pieces on Thatcher was written by David Ignatius of the Washington Post. While most everyone had noted that Thatcher had destroyed the British labor unions, Ignatius recognized there was more to it than that. In his words, “Thatcher demolished the two conservative pillars of British society: the labor unions that held the parliamentary Labour Party in bondage and the upper-class Tory leaders who resembled the benign but hapless relics of ‘Downton Abbey.’ It’s hard to say which side was more hidebound and resistant to change- the unions or the aristocrats.”

As Ignatius summed it up, “Thatcher opened the way for a politically powerful British middle class.”

In Britain, Thatcher is seen as the most transformative peacetime Prime Minister in modern British history – whether for good or ill depends on your perspective. Thirty years after Thatcher challenged the militant coal miners union and privatized the coal industry, areas of the country which once provided employment for a million coal miners and their families remain devastated. Millions of low income people have not forgotten her assault on social welfare programs – including her bid to eliminate free milk in schools.

On the other hand, Thatcherism, with its dedication to free market economics turned Britain around from “sick man” of Europe into one of its most prosperous. This revival was driven in part by a new, unfettered financial services industry in London – which Thatcher critics point out later contributed to the Crash of 2008.

In most polls since her death about half of Britons say Thatcher was good for Britain. Within the other half are those who have been parading around the streets of London in recent days singing “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead.”

I reported on Thatcher the international figure for most of her time in office. But I also lived in Thatcher’s’ Britain for about seven of her eleven years and with the detachment of an outsider could understand why she generated such strong emotions.

Yet I have always thought it significant that in the end, Thatcher was driven out of office, not by her political opponents on the left - but by members of her own Conservative party. John Major, the man elected to replace her called it an act of “matricide.” In short, her own cabinet decided that Thatcher was no longer good for her party- and by implication - for the country. That decision is an integral part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.