One Region
April 23, 2013

Britons’ shameful moment

The lady was dead. Margaret Thatcher, who dominated British political life and the transformation of a sick economy to a vibrant partner in Europe, was no more. In the words of the Bishop of London at her funeral service: “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings”.{{more}}

Common decency should have demanded respectful silence among those who may have been her most bitter political opponents. Regard for leaving Britain a better place than she found it when she took up the cudgels in 1979 should have encouraged expressions of praise and gratitude.

There was much of the latter. She richly deserved it. But, sadly, there was also much of the former by persons and groups of people – many of whom were not even born when she held office – who shamed their nation, and their national ethos of fairness, civility and good manners. The shouts of “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – dead, dead, dead,” as her funeral procession passed through the streets of London blighted the image of Britain, as did all the callous celebrations of her death, including the characterization of her as a “witch”.

The dislike – even hatred – of Margaret Thatcher arises from two principal events. The first is her victory over trade unions – particularly the Miners’ Union – that held the British economy to ransom with unreasonable demands and costly strikes. The second was her introduction of a poll tax. But it appears to have been forgotten that the economy she inherited as Prime Minister had long been in decline.

In the mid-1970s, shortly before she was elected in 1979, Britain had to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $4 billion of assistance; there were severe restrictions on the amount of money that persons could take on holiday; the tax rate soared to 83 per cent; inflation was high. In short, Britain and the British people were on their knees.

Turning around the dire economic situation would have been tough for any strong man; it was doubly difficult for a woman. Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister she may have been, but nonetheless she was a woman in a government consisting mainly of men from privileged backgrounds for whom women had a place that was not one of leadership. Her battle was on many fronts. No weak person could have taken it on, and certainly no weak woman.

This may have accounted for her tough public style – epitomized by her embracing of the epithet “Iron Lady” which commentators in the Soviet Union had ascribed to her, and also in the famous declaration: “You turn if you want to; the lady is not for turning”. It was easy to dislike that public style and to be vexed over her unyielding “conviction politics” that provided no room for compromise. She was, undoubtedly, a polarizing figure in Britain throughout her political career.

But, in her time in office, she transformed the British economy. The top rate of income tax was lowered from the high of 83 per cent to 40 per cent; the standard rate was slashed to 25 per cent; bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprises that were an expensive burden on the taxpayers were privatized, opening the way for competition, lower costs to the consumer and wider choices – among the state-owned companies that were privatized were British Airways, British Telecom, British Steel, British Gas and the British Airports Authority. Privatization democratized share ownership; shares in those companies were made available to all, including small investors, at affordable prices. Thus, it had the effect, not only of relieving taxpayers of the burden of subsidizing highly inefficient, loss-making enterprises, but also providing them the opportunity to invest and benefit from the companies’ future growth.

There was more; her government openly wooed foreign investment in Britain as a springboard into the European Union market; under her stewardship, Council housing was sold to their occupiers or others, giving persons at the lower end of the income scale an opportunity to own their own homes.

Essentially, what Margaret Thatcher did in Britain was to give Britons more personal freedom and less state intervention; she put more money in the pockets of individuals by reducing taxes and she encouraged entrepreneurship; she stymied the power of trade unions whose links then to the British Labour Party compromised its ability to make policy decisions of which the unions did not approve.

By the time she left office in 1990, Britain was no longer the sick man of Europe, and its people were better off.

It is telling that when the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, came to office, it was not the policies and practices of previous Labour Party governments that it followed; it was Margaret Thatcher’s path that it walked – extending the policies of deeper private sector involvement in the economy through public sector-private sector partnerships.

A word should be said about two foreign policy issues to which she is closely linked. The first is the matter of the Falkland Islands, which are claimed by Argentina. Apart from the legal case that establishes British sovereignty of the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher respected the right to self-determination by the people of the Falklands, and, despite opposition from many, including influential figures in her own Cabinet, she sided with that right to self-determination, and committed Britain to defending that right. She did not abandon the Falkland Islanders.

And, on apartheid in South Africa, while Commonwealth diplomats in London (including me at the time) were upset that she resisted economic sanctions against South Africa in 1985, she had earlier approved an arms embargo against the white regime, and her loathing of apartheid on moral grounds was well known by diplomats in London. Regrettably, other considerations – not least her close alliance with the United States and its concerns about communism in Southern Africa – trumped her abhorrence of apartheid, but we knew it would have been little different with a Labour government.

Nonetheless, she was elected three times, and at the end of the day, her stewardship of Britain invigorated the economy and improved the living conditions for many. That record deserved respect. Those Britons who scorned her in death and celebrated her passing shamed themselves and tarnished their country’s image.

(The writer is a Consultant, Visiting Fellow at London University and former Caribbean Diplomat)

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