Margaret Thatcher–Hail the heroine or ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’?
As arrangements for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday are being made—with 2,300 guests including foreign dignitaries expected to attend the ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral—it has been confirmed that Her Majesty The Queen, with the Duke of Edinburgh, will lead mourners in honoring one of the towering figures of the political firmament of the 20th century.
This is only the second time that the monarch attends the funeral rites of one of her former prime ministers; the first was Winston Churchill’s, in 1965. Since then there had been six prime ministerial funerals.
It will be a ceremonial funeral, similar to Princess Diana’s and the Queen Mother’s, with military honors. Thatcher’s coffin will be borne on a gun carriage pulled by horses of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. Some 700 soldiers, airmen and naval personnel—from branches of the British Armed Forces that played crucial roles in the Falklands War of 1982 (her just war)—will be lining the route to St Paul’s.
The great and good of the land are furiously campaigning for a full-blown state funeral; it is what she deserves, they say. But she had made her wishes known long before: She did not want to lie in state, and nor should there be a fly-past, it would be a waste of money, she said, in her characteristic Methodist parsimony.
At a time of painful austerity, the multimillion-pound cost of the ceremony will be shared between the British government and her family. A miners’ association—not one of her fans— launched an acerbic petition opposing a state-funded funeral.
“It should be privatized,” they said. “It’s what she would have wanted.” Their leader, who was celebrating his birthday on the day she died, hailed her death as “one of the best birthdays I have ever had.”
It is said that a prophet is never recognized as one in his own land. In America, they loved her. Queues of visitors have formed to sign a book of condolence at the British Embassy in DC, and the wall-to-wall media coverage of her death exquisitely rivaled our own. Henry Kissinger, the indefatigable Secretary of State to two American presidents, said that she had become so important to the administration in DC that she was “part of the decision-making process.”
Donations have been pouring in from around the world to local authorities in her hometown of Grantham, Lincolnshire, to fund the building of a statue in her honor.
In China, Russia, the Commonwealth countries, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, tributes have been reverential, with declarations of gratitude for her unique efforts in helping to engineer the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire. In these countries, she is being hailed a “heroine” for playing a key role in ending the Cold War, someone who faced the Soviet Union down in the fight for freedom against communist repression and made Mikhail Gorbachev someone any freedom-loving person could do business with.
The Russians are particularly proud to have anointed her with the “Iron Lady” epithet after she attacked the Kremlin’s designs on world domination. The name stuck and she joyfully embraced it as her very own.
In death, as in life, the Lady continues to divide and polarize opinion and reaction. For the funeral, the Fixated Threat Assessment Center of the Metropolitan Police is mounting the tightest security preparations since the Olympics, monitoring the activities of direct-action groups who pose a real threat of violence and of disturbed individuals and fanatics with a deep hatred of Thatcher.
Well before her death, social media—uncensored, uncontrolled, frightening—have been abuzz with postings to “organize parties when Thatcher dies.” Frothing with rage and several helpings of ordure, and spitting with malice, these have gone viral. Some newspaper websites crashed under the sheer weight of vitriolic and vile reader-comments on her death.
In Glasgow, Scotland, there were street parties, singing, dancing and drinking. In Brixton, London, rioters smashed shop windows, brandished “Rejoice—Thatcher is dead” banners, and cracked open bottles of champagne. An advertisement in Bristol read: “Let’s see the evil Tory off in style. May she never ever RIP.” Posters denouncing her as a “terrorist” and a “racist” have been left on her doorstep in London’s smart Belgravia.
A Facebook campaign is mobilizing support to take Judy Garland’s “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” to number one in the charts before Wednesday’s funeral. People who cannot suffocate their bile and candor have gone on Twitter, simmering with rhetorical hatred and verbal violence directed against her.
“Politics,” wrote Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo, “is full of stories of how quickly the movers and the shakers become the moved and the shaken.”
These are isolated, but profoundly shocking and disturbing incidents. And maybe they merely reflect the disappointed and angry temper of our times: find someone, anyone, to blame.
Who better than a colossus of a leader who, in her lifetime, was demonized, lionized, canonized in equal measures?
An outraged Tony Blair—said to be her “greatest achievement”—excoriated these events as being in poor taste.
“Even if you disagree with someone very strongly, you can still—particularly at the moment of their passing—you should show some respect.”
When his interviewer asked him whether he was concerned that similar celebrations would greet the news of his own death, he said: “When you decide, you divide. I think she would be pretty philosophical about it, and I hope I would be, too.”
Blair, the author of our involvement in the Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the futile search for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, was Labor prime minister from 1997-2007. He freely admits that his government kept some of the significant changes Ms Thatcher’s Tory government introduced while in power.
The economist Walter Bagehot once said that “the first law of political dynamics is the law of gainers and losers, and that those to whom government gives, they offer no thanks, but those from whom government takes they scream like mad.”
It’s true that some of the changes caused considerable pain and life-altering dislocation and disenfranchisement, especially in former coal-mining and steel-making working class communities. But people appear to have so quickly forgotten that before Margaret Thatcher came to power, the United Kingdom was the sick and sclerotic man of Europe, comatose and moribund in the winter of his discontent.
Britain was a country that lost an empire and was looking for a role in world affairs. The government of the day, under the cosh and sway of powerful union grandees, was deemed ungovernable. The top rate of tax on income was a sphincter-busting 83 percent, triggering a brain-drain and the flight of capital. Unsustainable subsidies propped up loss-making, rust-bucket state-run industries. Strikes were commonplace.
“I came to office with one deliberate intent,” she said, “to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society; from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation, a get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.”
In a chauvinistic, class-riven country, she was propelled to power by the strength of her convictions, smashing her determined way through all manner and shape of ceilings, all the while firmly standing her ground, with the odds firmly stacked against her: a feminine woman and Establishment outsider versus an all-male political club with the trappings of privilege and entitlement; a grocer’s daughter who went to grammar school versus public school-educated boys who called her “that b….y woman, Attila the Hen, Virago Intacta.”
Sense of destiny
You cannot enter the mincing machine that is politics and public life, and you cannot endure the bear-pit that is the House of Commons without a sense of your own destiny. You cannot be a leader of strong, highly intelligent and capable men without deploying the full force of your personality and charisma. You cannot change the political and social landscape of a hidebound society by making concessions or seeking consensus.
“You turn if you want to,” she defiantly said, “the Lady’s not for turning.”
Britain, a country on its knees in 1979, needed a warrior-leader, a revolutionary visionary and patriot. And 56-year-old Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister (and the longest-serving in the 20th century), was it.
“All politicians are abnormal, mused Joseph Stalin, a politician who knew something about power. “It takes a special character to enter public life, a will to power, a detached vision of self, a sense of special gifts, if not a conviction of a unique mission,” wrote the historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore.
Said to be the best man in her Cabinet, with a tongue as sharp as a knife that killed without drawing blood, Thatcher was praised by admirers for having sheer brass balls, “hand-bagging” her way through difficult meetings and contentious negotiations, while at the same time driving some men weak at the knees for being very attractive. She was a power-dressed alpha woman fully aware of her own alluring femininity.
Francois Mitterand, the French President (1981-1995), described her as having the eyes of Caligula but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe. Later, in another interminable European summit, an exasperated Jacques Chirac exclaimed: “What does she want, this housewife? My balls on a tray?!”
“She was both sexy and scary,” wrote Ben Macintyre in The Times. “She was the most admired, detested, praised and vilified figure of the second half of the 20th century. She inspired blind hatred, swooning worship, anger and adoration.”
Thatcher believed in the canny housekeeper’s “purse mentality,” in self-sufficiency, reining in spending and controlling budgets.
“Governments do not create wealth. Personal responsibility is the key. That was what destroyed Greece and Rome—bread and circuses,” she said. “You do not spend what you don’t have.”
In the eleven-and-a-half years of her premiership, two-thirds of the state’s assets were sold off in a bold programme of privatization that has since been successfully copied around the world, creating competitive market economies. Reforms in taxation, public finance and trade unions were enacted, unleashing a spirit of enterprise that transformed British business culture.
Self-determination and ingenuity became the hallmarks of free markets. Government-owned houses were sold to tenants, creating millions of new, proud homeowners.
“Thatcherism” became a political benchmark.
“She took a country on its knees,” said Prime Minister David Cameron, “and made it stand tall again.” Inflation fell and interest rates slashed. The “Big Bang” of 1986 deregulated the financial markets of the City of London, creating what is today the world’s financial capital.
In 1982, Gen. Galtieri and his Argentine troops invaded the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic Ocean over which Argentina has long-standing claims. British task forces were swiftly and successfully dispatched to retake the islands which, in March this year, overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to remain British.
“In 1979,” wrote Rupert Murdoch in a flattering encomium that was published in The Times today, “Ms Thatcher set about the country’s rehabilitation. She put the economy on a sound footing; she ended a culture of crippling strikes; she encouraged entrepreneurs to come here and set up their businesses.”
She didn’t get everything right, and there was still much to be done. She once said that: “There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people, and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help, by our own efforts, those who are unfortunate.”
Despite this ringing homily, the abhorrent “loadsamoney” sex-and-shopping culture was born. In one of the richest countries in the world, the inequalities in opportunity, social mobility and income remain, to this day, egregiously stark. We are multitudes, diverse and unequal.
In 1984, she had become a top assassination target for the IRA and very nearly died when a bomb exploded at a conference hotel. Never clubbable and increasingly imperious, she started to lose the support of her trusted lieutenants, claiming “I’m not here to be nice.”
Failing to secure victory in a Tory leadership contest, she resigned on Nov. 29, 1990. She fell at the hands of enemies on her side.
In retirement she was, as ever, inexhaustible, writing her memoirs, bestriding the international stage on speaking engagements. Her physical decline started when she suffered the first in a series of strokes and a diagnosis of dementia, and became more pronounced in 2003 after the death of her beloved, unstintingly loyal and indulgent husband Denis.
Her children—the twins Carol and Mark—did not visit her much, preferring to live in Switzerland and Spain, respectively.
“Look,” she said to Saga magazine, “you can’t have everything. It has been the greatest privilege being Prime Minister of my country. Yes, I wish I saw more of my children. We don’t have Sunday lunch together. I can’t regret. And I haven’t lost my children. They have their lives; I took a different life.”
“Mrs. T,” as we fondly called her, inspired a new generation of forward-thinking leaders and blazed a trail for women, although she never pretended or said that a woman—even in full possession of her qualities, strengths and powers—could have it all. Famously she said: “If you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.”
In the end, everything seems to come down to so little. But Mrs. T, and our memory of her, most certainly do not deserve the hysterical and odious ventilations of people suffering from a hernia of self-importance or have a mild and selective acquaintance with facts or history.
“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs,” said the British politician and writer Enoch Powell.
Perhaps she did break the mould, after all, and that we have seen the first and the last of her kind. In years to come, history will judge her and her legacy. But at a time of abject hardship and conflict in a troubled world, when the center appears unable to hold fast, there is a clear yearning for a leader, like her, who will make Britain great again.
The ‘Maggie look’
THATCHER’S BOXY, hard-sided handbags (usually an Asprey or a Launer), had short handles worn in the crook of her elbow; they became her trademark and metaphorical weapon.
A Ferragamo bag of hers sold at auction for £82,110, and an Asprey handbag, also sold at auction, sold for £25,000.
Thanks to Thatcher, “to handbag” has entered the Oxford English dictionary; it means to treat a person, idea, etc. ruthlessly or insensitively.
The Prime Minister’s chauffeur asked an aide: “Who is this Carmen Roller who sees the PM at 8 every morning?” Thatcher had a near-perfect bouffant hair. In power, her hair became bigger and blonder.
With photo opportunities and the arrival of television cameras inside the Houses of Parliament, Thatcher became a power dresser, with the help of a fashion adviser. She favored timeless-looking, knee-length suits and dresses, silk or chiffon blouses with pussycat bows. Understated, but statement, jewelry—usually double-strand pearls—finished the ensemble. Seven of her outfits recently sold at auction for £25,000.