Whether Margaret Thatcher was a divisive figure in life is a matter of judgement, but she certainly has become one in death. This was demonstrated in the precipitous debate in Parliament on Wednesday when many Labour MPs stayed away and we were subjected to a six hour Tory festschrift of mind-numbing sycophancy as one MP after another stood to deliver their comments on how nice she was to them and how, in private, she bore little of her public persona interspersed with the occasional dissenting voice from the opposition benches. Why this debate could not have waited until Monday when Parliament reassembled precluding the £2 reportedly spent as a consequence I do not know. Why it lasted so long when the debate following Winston Churchill’s death lasted only 45 minutes I cannot understand. Then he have the lamentable decision to cave in to political pressure not to play ‘The Witch is Dead’ in the BBC Chart Show. But equally we have the distasteful ‘Thatcher’s Dead’ parties, the vitriol from the ‘Old Left’ about the splits she caused in the country and a blatant attempt by both sides to re-write History. It is hardly surprising that critics of whatever political persuasion see all this as a naked exercise in political propaganda as they all seek to grasp their share of Thatcher’s legacy, for good or ill. With the exception of the United States where the public seem bemused by responses to her death, the international press appears to have adopted the polarities evident in the United Kingdom.
But then it was always going to be like this. Margaret Thatcher was when she was Prime Minister and this has continued to be her enduring legacy an intensely divisive figure and people’s attitudes to her generally fall at one of the two poles: she was either a necessary, ideological figure who dragged Britain out of the ‘slough of despond’ that was the 1960s and 1970s or she was the destroyer of Britain as a manufacturing country. The truth, as is always the case, lies somewhere in between. Those of us who are old enough remember just how bad things had got by the late 1970s and that Britain was generally regarded as the ‘basket-case’ of Europe. This was, in part, the result of the implosion of Britain’s colonial empire, its unwillingness to respond to the challenges of the post-war world and the over-mighty power of different interest groups inside and outside Parliament that has a vested interest in matters not changing and the inability of politicians between 1969 and 1979 to persuade them to do so. Politicians of all parties were looking back to what was rather than forward to what might be a better ‘green and pleasant land’. Although trade unions have been seen as the traditional cause of this situation, and their often intensely undemocratic leadership has a case to answer, they were not the only group in society that sought to keep power-relations as they were. By 1979, for all the rhetoric, the post-war consensus politics was already a thing of the past, society was already divided and many of the changes that Thatcher introduced when she was Prime Minister had already begun to be implemented; for instance, Harold Wilson closed more coal mines than she did.
Historically, political leaders who want to change things tend to be vilified by their opponents and feted by their friends. You only have to read the debates when Sir Robert Peel sought to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846 to recognise this; Benjamin Disraeli’s speeches ended Peel’s political reputation and he never held political office again though his early death in 1850 following a horse-riding accident also contributed to this. The vitriol heaped on Margaret Thatcher is as nothing to the vicious, vindictive venom of Disraeli (albeit brilliant) speeches. William Gladstone also had to face public and political outrage over his attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s and 1890s. Political leaders with a ‘mission’ always have to cope with those who oppose root and branch the changes that are proposed. Margaret Thatcher’s supporters, much as those of Peel and Gladstone did for their hero, laud her as the woman who saved her country, her critics damn her as the woman who destroyed it. Eventually there will be a more nuanced verdict.