Margaret Thatcher: who are you?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This is not an article about the young fans of Harry Styles who were perplexed by the One Direction star’s ‘RIP Thatcher’ tweet. I would probably vomit before reaching the end of that article.

No, this is an article reflecting on the contrasting opinions of Margaret Thatcher, the trailblazing British Prime Minister/capitalist fiend/female icon/witch who died on Monday. I can only start by apologising that my viewpoint is going to lie between the extremes of love and hate, and I can only blame my History degree.

I found myself broadly agreeing with historian Dominic Sandbrook’s article for the BBC on Thatcher. In essence, Sandbrook argues that Thatcher merely accelerated the trends present in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Seen in this context, Thatcher played a significant role in the development of Britain, but Britain today would not be so radically different if she had never existed.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The British economy could not survive as it was (hailing from an old mining village, this is a dangerous thing for me to be saying) and British society was deeply divided. Thatcher sought to win the support of several factions of that society, which meant alienating others.

If we look at Thatcher’s School of International Relations for a moment, she has been – deservedly – criticised for the sinking of the Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands War, as well as her attitudes towards Europe and apartheid-era South Africa.

Thatcher has also been attacked for her brutal treatment of Irish nationalists and the censorship of their views in the press. Was she simply a monster? Well, it depends on your side of the fence really.

This is where I must declare my impartial heritage. My paternal family lived in Belfast during the worst of the Troubles. Now, most people in Northern Ireland – Catholic or Protestant – have shown little sympathy to either group of antagonists in this conflict. Frankly, the concern over whether Northern Ireland should be in the UK or the Irish Republic pales into significance when compared to the fear that an idiot with a gun or a brick or a bomb will kill you or a member of your family.

Is it any surprise that many Northern Irish people tended to be glad to see someone take a tough approach against the idiots, if predominantly one side of idiots? Thatcher is despised by many in Ireland for her actions; she is praised by others (members of my family included) for those very same actions.

I would apply a similar line of argument to her economic policy. In some respects it was misguided. Hopeless. Appalling. The people who suffered due to her heavy-handedness have every right to be astounded when David Cameron claims that she “rescued” Britain.

As many suffered, many benefited from Thatcherism. She promoted the interests of the ‘new’ and aspirational middle class and won their support by tilting British society away from the old industries and towards them instead. Thatcher curtailed the power of the trade unions and plunged miners, shipbuilders and others besides into poverty. Sympathy for their cause was weakened by the inconvenient fact that their industrial action in the 1970s had made life for their fellow Britons less than comfortable.

In the 1980s Thatcher gave very many British people what they needed to realise their aspirations, while also taking on and beating those responsible for the previous decade’s shortages and blackouts. These are the people who echo the claims that she made Britain great again.

So, it seems to me that the question ‘Margaret Thatcher: good or bad?’ leads only to another question – ‘who are you?’ If you suffered as a miner in 1984-85, you’re glad she’s dead. If you approved of her approach towards militant Irish Republicans, you’re going to appreciate what she did rather more. It’s all in the context.

Context, as well as being a word for historians to get off on, also explains my confusion as to why people of my generation, living mostly if not entirely after Thatcher’s departure from Downing Street, have such strong feelings. I know why my family (Protestant Northern Irish, aspirational middle class) are pro-Thatcher, but I cannot ever truly understand it.

Agree or disagree with what Thatcher represents in today’s political culture, yes, please do; she was divisive by nature so it’d be a shame not to. But don’t go declaring love or hatred for the woman on Twitter because her economic policy helped out your family in generations past or because you’re Scottish and you feel obliged to despise.

Debates are good. Vitriol – or indeed hagiography – not so much.


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