London, United Kingdom – As one of the defining global figures of the late 20th century, Margaret Thatcher thrived on conflict, relishing the practice of politics and statecraft at home and abroad at its most gladiatorial and never backing down from confrontation with those she called her enemies.
And in death, the former British prime minister continues to inspire devotion and hatred in large doses, even as the country that she dominated for more than a decade argues over a legacy that shapes its political landscape to this day.
To her supporters on the right, Thatcher was the woman who saved a country floundering in post-imperial decline; a free market zealot who reconfigured a stagnating economy by breaking the power of the trade unions and igniting the “Big Bang” that made London a world capital of finance in a blaze of deregulation and selling off of state assets that became known as “Thatcherism”.
She sent British troops to fight for the disputed Falklands Islands following a 1982 invasion by Argentine forces, successfully reclaiming the South Atlantic territory and setting in motion the collapse of military rule in Buenos Aires.
“She was divisive simply because she attacked entrenched interests, whether it was the trade unions or the need to make structural changes in the British economy.“
– John Major, former prime minister
Abroad, she was the “Iron Lady” – a title originally bestowed on her by the Soviet Union’s Red Star army newspaper – who stared down communism alongside US President Ronald Reagan and inspired the eastern European uprisings that brought the Cold War to a sudden and unexpected end.
“She was divisive simply because she attacked entrenched interests, whether it was the trade unions or the need to make structural changes in the British economy,” John Major, who succeeded Thatcher as prime minister and Conservative party leader in 1990, told Al Jazeera. “The fact she was a conviction politician was bound to concern those who had no convictions or different convictions.”
But to her critics, Thatcher was a force of devastation, who destroyed British industry and laid waste to communities that have never recovered; who sold the country’s fortunes to a deregulated financial sector and encouraged a speculative culture with disastrous consequences; and whose premiership was defined by the pitched battles of the 1984 miners’ strike, by inner city riots and by the social unrest over the hated poll tax that eventually led to her political demise in 1990.
In foreign affairs, she dismissed the apartheid-fighting Africa National Congress in South Africa as “a typical terrorist organisation” and refused to back sanctions against the racist state, and drank tea with Augusto Pinochet while the former Chilean military ruler was being held under house arrest in London as part of an investigation into human rights abuses.
|A dance with US President Ronald Reagan in 1988 [Reuters]|
“She pursued policies that caused great suffering to millions of ordinary working class men and women in this country,” Peter Tatchell, a political activist, told Al Jazeera. “She decimated the manufacturing base, causing unprecedented mass unemployment. She used virtual police state methods to suppress the miners’ strike. The miners were effectively starved back to work. These were very cruel and heartless policies.”
David Cameron, the British prime minister, set the official tone of mourning, saying: “Margaret Thatcher didn’t just lead our country; she saved our country. She was the patriot prime minister, and she fought for Britain’s interests every step of the way.”
But even as leading politicians of all parties were delivering carefully worded tributes to the country’s only female prime minister, some Britons were celebrating an event which, owing to Thatcher’s longstanding health problems, had been long anticipated.
In the south London neighbourhood of Brixton, the scene of race riots in 1981, several hundred people staged an impromptu street party, chanting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Dead, Dead, Dead”. Footage of another street party in the northern city of Leeds showed a reveler handing out “Maggie death cake” to passers-by. Similar events were reported in other cities.
A website called Is Thatcher Dead Yet? had simply been updated with the word “Yes”, and urged users to post details of their plans to celebrate, while a Facebook campaign was gaining momentum in its bid to send the song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” from “The Wizard of Oz” to the top of the pop charts.
In former mining villages in northern England there were widespread celebrations, with pubs declaring happy hours as they were inundated with jubilant drinkers, including many veterans of the miners’ strike.
The 12-month walkout in protest at plans to close down pits offered the most concerted resistance to Thatcher’s policies, and her sternest test in her efforts to tame the unions, with picketing miners often suffering brutal treatment at the hands of the police and many families enduring hardship as the dispute dragged on.
“Our children have got no jobs and the community is full of problems. There’s no work and no money and it’s very sad the legacy she has left behind.“
– David Hopper, Durham Miners Association
Speaking then, Thatcher drew comparison between the fight to defeat the miners and the war with Argentina two years earlier, saying: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
David Hopper, the general secretary of the Durham Miners Association, who also celebrated his 70th birthday on Monday, said he was simply pleased to have outlived Thatcher.
“It looks like one of the best birthdays I have ever had. There’s no sympathy from me for what she did to our community. She destroyed our community, our villages and our people,” said Hopper.
“Our children have got no jobs and the community is full of problems. There’s no work and no money and it’s very sad the legacy she has left behind.
“She absolutely hated working people and I have got very bitter memories of what she did. She turned all the nation against us and the violence that was meted out on us was terrible.”
Matthew Parris, a former Conservative member of parliament and aide to Thatcher, conceded that her battle with the miners would be the key episode of her career in terms of shaping how history would judge her.
“It began to define her then and will, with the passage of time, define her completely as the divisive figure that she was,” Parris told Al Jazeera. “It did seem as if half Britain was taking up arms against another half of Britain. She would say that it was a necessary battle.”
|A portrait left by mourners outside Thatcher’s home [Reuters]|
But some critics are not yet ready to consign Thatcherism to the past, seeing continuity from the Thatcher era to the UK’s current economic problems, and parallels with the current Conservative-led government’s socially divisive policies that include cuts to public services and welfare benefits and the selling off of state assets.
“Her free market economics in many ways paved the way for the current economic crisis,” said Tatchell. “She was light on regulating the financial and business sectors. She gave them free rein saying that monetarism was the most important ideology and that people had to be sacrificed for the greater good.
“She denigrated the idea of community and we are living with the legacy today because we are a much more divided society.”
Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper