Legacies of Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013) – Punch

By The Citizen

Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister who passed away on April 8, will be laid to rest today in a ceremonial funeral, stripped of the glaze of state burial.  Thatcher died at the ripe age of 87 years after suffering a stroke in a London hotel. Her demise has triggered a wave of tributes and controversies from within and outside the United Kingdom; a paradox that relives her legacy as a divisive figure.

Daughter of a grocer, born Margaret Hilda Roberts, Thatcher was educated at Oxford University, where she took a degree in chemistry in 1947; she later studied law at the same institution in 1953 as she prepared herself for a career in public life. The significance of her life and times will be underscored by the presence of Queen Elizabeth II at her funeral. This would be only the second of such outings by the Queen in her 60-year reign, considered a breach of royal protocol. The first was in 1965, when Winston Churchill, the country's World War II hero and prime minister, was buried.

Globally, her life offered so many lessons in leadership. An archetypal Conservative, she was elected in 1979 as the first female British prime minister. Before then, she had spent 20 years under tutelage, having been a parliamentary under-secretary for Pension and National Insurance in 1961, Secretary of State for Education and leader of the Conservative party in 1975, among others.  Evidently, she was a leader who came to office well honed, acutely aware of the temper or mood of her age and defined her compass accordingly.

She had warned quite early that Britain risked being a footnote on the pages of history if it did not change its vision and direction.  This entreaty came against the backdrop of the fact that the nation had yet to fully convalesce from the economic ravages of the World War II, and its influence in the global arena was waning.  Her strategy, as she put it, was, 'If you lead a country like Britain, a country which has taken a lead in world affairs in good times and in bad, a country that is always reliable, then you have to have a touch of iron about you.'

And that was exactly the leadership she offered her country. A devotee in the economic cult of Friedrich Hayek and John Keynes, Thatcher launched her country into the super highway of market-driven economy that yielded as much prosperity as it begot temporary pain and anguish for many Britons. Sooner than later, her privatisation philosophy became a paradigm for many countries in Europe. EU countries were to sell off $100 billion worth of assets. In Britain, public assets such as British Airways, British Petroleum, telecommunications and even municipal council houses rented by the poor were sold off. To her, government had no business being in business.  She cut government spending, an extremism that led to the removal of milk from the meal of school pupils. Subsidies to companies were slashed; this skyrocketed the unemployment level. Perhaps, the mortal blow she dealt to organised labour, especially the Arthur Scargil-led National Union of Mine Workers, brought out the 'Iron' in her. For more than one year, the miners were on strike. Ultimately, she was the victor - the union was never again to be an incubus or a pin in the balloon of any government. Previous administrations had been held hostage by it.

Bereft of any sense of community insitu, Thatcher extended her unbelief in society to Europe as she delivered a scathing philippic against all that the European Union stood for. She even recovered Britain's contribution to that supra-national body. But her intransigence or unyielding posture on every issue she believed passionately ultimately became her undoing. It provided the last straw that broke her back.  Many members of her cabinet, especially Geoffrey Howe, the deputy prime minister and closest ally, had to resign because of her refusal to agree to a date for Britain to join the single European currency. His exit from the cabinet set in motion a chain of events that consigned Thatcher's epoch to history.

At the international arena, not a few saw her as an iconic figure, an imperious, dogged woman, who loved political battles. She was loved by friends and allies, just as she was hated in equal measure by foes.  Thatcher had a political soulmate in Ronald Reagan, a president of the United States of America, at a time the world was pretty sitting on a powder keg, driven by ideological extremism of the far right and far left. It was the cooperation of the two in the 1980s that helped to tear down the Iron Curtain, which eventually ended the Cold War in the 1990s. The ruthlessness with which she approached the Falklands (Island) crisis in 1982 and her victory; and her inflexibility to the Northern Ireland question, all helped to make the Thatcher mystic.  It did not matter to her that the Irish Republican Army blew up the hotel where her party was holding a conference in 1984, which almost killed her.  Her grit and uncompromising position on global affairs was to earn her an enduring sobriquet, the 'Iron Lady,' from a Russian journalist.

Just as she was hated by many at home and in Europe, her foreign policy towards Africa gave her away. It seemed as if it was scripted by Joseph Conrad, the man who saw the continent as the 'Heart of Darkness.' Her denunciation of the African National Congress and iconic Nelson Mandela as 'terrorists,' brought her odium.  It could be argued that she valued her husband's (Denis') business interests there more than she did the freedom of the blacks in the then racist enclave. Others say her attitude towards ANC and Mandela was informed by her religious detestation of anything with a communist label. By and large, she was a leader who made her country great once more and knew where her country was headed. Nigerian leaders have a lesson to learn in this regard.