The Divided Kingdom: Margaret Thatcher’s historic and haunting legacy

How an we ever forgive Meryl Streep for making Margaret Thatcher lovable? Maybe it is because she is an American actress and America can with an innocence denied those of us who lived through her 11 years as prime minister.

Even before her forced approach Margaret Thatcher exit from power, Baroness Thatcher had achieved iconic status. Icons can hide or distort the human; but somehow Meryl managed to remind us that behind the carefully constructed image, a human being might be found. The film “The Iron Lady” was not a political biopic; it was a love story. Not only did it show us Margaret’s slow diminishment; it showed us the love at the center of her life—her husband, Denis.

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Against the very domestic ordinariness of love, loss, death and letting go, the film interwove the high drama
of politics: the massive tectonic shifts in world power, economies, political orders and ideologies that Mrs. Thatcher not only lived through but helped bring about. In a subtle and perhaps unintentional way, “The Iron Lady” reflects on what, in the end, was real. When the great office of state has gone, and the borrowed robes of power are put away for someone else to wear, before the infirmities of mind and body begin to lay their claim, what remains?

If Thatcher held fast to her oft-quoted poet Rudyard Kipling, the film leaves us catching the whispered voice of Philip Larkin—a very post-imperial English voice—in “An Arundel Tomb”: “what will survive of us is love.” But Margaret Thatcher, loved? 

Long before her death, her political ghost still stalked British politics and culture. No one is yet strong enough to exorcise it. Successive governments—Labour, Conservative or coalition—have merely tried to appease it. In her death we find that the divisions, as much as the admiration she inspired, have surfaced once again. The “mummy” has returned!

We can admire her courage, stamina and steely resolve whether in facing down the male, class-ridden British establishment to become the first woman prime minister, or prosecuting the war against Argentina’s military junta to recapture the Falklands. Her appearance, immaculately dressed and in full command after the Irish Republican Army’s attempted assassination, was as fresh and determined as ever, with the shattered Brighton hotel behind her. This was not just defiance, it was a political coup. This statement made it clear to the I.R.A. that the political process would prevail over the bullet and the bomb.

Nations, especially those that still believe in their own imperial greatness, need such iconic moments of leadership. Here, the leader—the president or the prime minister—may represent a complex magnificence about human triumph, national identity and stability in the face of disaster or malign intent. All of this is real, and one can only be grateful for it. But it can also be dangerous. Sheer strength of personality and conviction, convinced of its own rightness, can erode a nation through the social struggle and division it almost needs to create to claim its triumph and legitimacy.

One of Mrs. Thatcher’s acronyms, TINA, “there is no alternative” (to her way), reveals an odd contradiction at the heart of her defense of democracy in Britain and elsewhere. On the one hand, it was driven by a peculiarly bourgeois morality of self-determination that eroded the social capital and social conscience she wanted to restore. On the other, her nostalgia for the “Great” in Great Britain prevented it from creatively rethinking its role in Europe and world affairs to take account of its long postimperial international and economic position. Her desire to restore British “greatness” through free-market philosophy, conjured from Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, actually divided the country and sapped much of its confidence and energy.

Values or Vices?

Mrs. Thatcher undid the carefully constructed postwar social contract, claiming to retrieve “Victorian values.” Yet the United Kingdom experienced more of their vices than their imagined virtues. “Thatcherism” legitimated hedonistic wealth creation—for the few—but demonized the poor. While soaring unemployment destroyed communities and squandered the public benefits of being an oil-rich nation, she nevertheless blamed the victims of her policies for their moral failure of being poor and lacking in enterprise. This massive restructuring of British society was also a restructuring of the British imagination; it shrank to the small possessive pronoun, repetitive improvisations on the theme of “me” and “mine.” Civility and humane generosity, noblesse oblige that belongs to our very humanity itself, left British culture.

The paradox continued. Mrs. Thatcher, who reinforced both Britain’s mistrust of Europe and its demand of entitlement for its market and benefits, took Britain more deeply into the European Union than any other prime minister. While ruthlessly and foolishly allowing the I.R.A. to make a massive moral and public-relations victory out of the death of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers, she nevertheless signed the Anglo-Irish agreement without which the Good Friday Peace Agreement would not have been possible. That was the end of the beginning of the end of Ulster Unionism.

For a politician totally committed to the Union, her decision to implement the poll tax in Scotland resulted in the rejection of her government in Scotland and the end of the fragile Scottish Conservatives as a significant force in Scottish politics. This contributed to the resurgence of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the push beyond devolution to independence.

I am sure Mrs. Thatcher, with her Methodist upbringing, was familiar with the old saying that even the devil can quote Scripture. Did she think this might apply to her when, with astonishing crassness, she undertook to interpret Christ’s parables as a complete legitimation of her economic policies? Could the Good Samaritan, she asked, afford to be so generous if he had not first acquired wealth? Does the parable of the talents not give divine sanction to the entrepreneurial spirit? Strangely, her exegesis did not lead her to support sanctions against the iniquity of apartheid in South Africa.

Was There Another Way?

If all this is part of the complex, painful and divided legacy that now emerges upon Mrs. Thatcher’s death, there remains still one aspect that is hardly noticed. As in the United States, so in the United Kingdom, there are moments when politics surprises its practitioners; it actually realizes the moral and social good that it speaks about. Sometimes this happens in moments of genuine national crisis; at other times it happens through the normal mechanisms of government: the repeal of oppressive laws, the enactment of a justice long denied or policies that frame a vision of humanity and human dignity. In these moments the political process redeems itself.

Margaret Thatcher was right: Politics does need a moral vision even when it is at its most mundane and pragmatic. It needs constantly to reflect upon the sort of society that creates and sustains human flourishing for all its people, not just the articulate, powerful or privileged. It is precisely our disagreements about what this society might look like and how it can best be achieved that makes democratic politics worthwhile. Yet when the moral vision becomes an imposition, enforced by personality or conviction, when it cannot hear alternatives, when it must always win, then it ceases to build a society; rather, it paralyzes it.

Since Mrs. Thatcher left office, British politics has been afraid to claim a moral vision because it still remembers the cost of hers. In the main, it has been about staying in power or tacking to the shifting winds of the focus group, as if this can substitute for a formative public discourse. Any society that has abandoned its moral vision, that has substituted arguments about means for arguments about ends, is a society in decline. Neither affluence nor power will save it from its own internal contradiction and corruption.

When Mrs. Thatcher stood on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street having been elected the first woman prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, she recited the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
 

What a magnificent vision for a truly great society. What a noble task for politics and politicians. If politics is about hard, impossible choices, why should we not make them in favor of those that enlarge our hearts, our wills, imagination and purpose; those that take us beyond ourselves into a greater good? You see, there was another way after all. What a pity that Margaret Thatcher—with all her courage, energy and political skill—seems not to have understood the prayer she spoke as she entered our public lives. 

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