April 12, 2013 3:00 pm

Margaret Thatcher 1925-2013

Her followers were evangelical. The violence of her opposition was a measure of her power. Simon Schama analyses how Thatcher transformed Britain, while Simon Kuper looks at her legacy abroad
Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the Conservative party, during the election campaign which brought her to power as prime minister. 1979©Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Margaret Thatcher during the 1979 general election campaign that brought her to power

Simon Schama on Thatcher at home

The commonplace says that you either loved or hated her. But the truth is that you could feel both ways about her, often at the same time. Just ask the remains of Norman St John-Stevas, or battle-scarred survivors of her reign like Geoffrey Howe. Those who were against her were also for her. Barbara Castle, a minister in the Wilson Labour governments and a fierce warrior, her voice hardened by northern smoke, and too much nicotine, confessed reluctant excitement to her diary when Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tories in 1975. “She is so clearly the best man among them and will in my view have enormous advantages in being a woman too. I can’t help feeling a thrill even though I believe her election will make things much more difficult for us.” Brian Walden, swashbuckling Labour MP and hot-headed cavalier of the media, warbled that her leadership was the stuff about which “great novels and poems” would be written. She was Christopher Hitchens’ first rightwing romance even while he counted himself among the hard left, and he wrote about her with the eyelash bat of the blushing submissive. When she refused to concede his argument on Rhodesia as it then was, he made a little bow of acknowledgment. “Bow lower,” he reports her commanding. Hitch complied. “No, no, much lower,” she said, and he duly obeyed, pulse quickening.

Doubtless she said it with the velvety burr of imperiousness that pretty much everyone short of Arthur Scargill fell for. The depth of it, along with the removal of the hats, may have been the idea of her makeover genius Gordon Reece, but the way she deployed it to cloak hard words in soft tones was all her own. Ronald Reagan’s way with saying outrageous things as though soothing a child was exactly the same. You imagine them softly breathing mutually reinforcing nostrums at each other, the more outlandish the assertion, the quieter and smilier they would get, until they both disappeared down the octave range into silent certitude. When you factored in the capacity for warm mischief, the effect could be devastating. A New Zealand caller to National Public Radio in the US last week recalled his little daughter shaking her hand and asking, “Are you the Queen of England?” to which without missing a beat she replied to the parents, “Now don’t disillusion her, will you?”

Margaret Thatcher with Tony Blair in London in 2007 at the 25th anniversary commemorations for the Falklands war©AFP

With Tony Blair in London in 2007 at the 25th anniversary commemorations for the Falklands war

She was Boudicca with a handbag, helmet-haired Gloriana, Britannia with a cruise missile. Who really knows what Alfred Roberts, the aldermanic grocer of Grantham, instilled in her but she cottoned on to one of the most potent dirty little secrets in British life: that a nation of gentle, middling people likely to apologise when their toes are trodden on, every so often, crave a warrior. The most comically disingenuous of her promises in front of 10 Downing Street on the night of electoral victory, attributed wrongly to St Francis, was to preach, “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” Yeah, right. She knew very well that in Britain the yearned-for combat-ready fighter might come waving a cigar or draped in pearls but if, in a time of accumulating trouble, crumpled helplessness and miserable frustration, they will say and do things that sweep aside the conventions, the compromises, the muttered apologies, the tut-tutted “it can’t be done you know”, then the British will cast off their customary moderation and roar the gladiator on.

Thatcher aboard HMS Antrim on a visit to the Falklands, 1983©AFP

Thatcher aboard HMS Antrim on a visit to the Falklands, 1983

Up to a point and only for so long, to be sure. We are talking about Norwich not Nuremberg. And the fighter has to have the luck or the gift of historical timing to be ready to step forward when the “had it up to here” moment beckons. This, she had in spades, but the truth is that before Alfred Sherman and others introduced her to the wisdoms of Hayek, a serious element in her party, many of them members of the Heath government like Keith Joseph, wanted to pull away from the state-heavy interventionism in the mixed economy towards something more theologically Conservative (or actually Gladstonian in its appeal to rugged individualism and moral self-reliance, for we often forget that in the mighty days of Queen Victoria it was Disraeli’s “One Nation” Conservatives who were the pioneers of benevolent state social regulation). Margaret Thatcher was supposed to be the instrument of their evangelism because the men in the dull striped ties and poorly pressed trousers somehow recognised that being outside their club she could make an authentic connection with the middle class, for which their public schooling had ill-prepared them and which, for that matter, they felt was a bore, a chore and altogether beneath their wittily honed talents. But Margaret was nobody’s mouthpiece but her own.

Thatcher supporters at the Norfolk County Showground, 1983©Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Thatcher supporters at the Norfolk County Showground, 1983

It was exactly that patronising superciliousness, so stinging when she was the “statutory woman” in Heath’s cabinet (assigned to Education as if there was some sort of right fit between a female and the needs of the kiddies), which Thatcher detested almost as much as the economic stranglers (as she saw them) of the trade union movement, or the assassins of the INLA who but for a few feet of wall nearly killed her and who had indeed done away with her friend Airey Neave. Like a latter-day Cromwell or (despite her Francophobia) a Bonaparte she relished tormenting the Knowing, whether senior civil servants, or her own cabinet colleagues whose positions she often undercut with the exhaustively informed, fiendish merriment that, in the end, would fuel her comeuppance.

Though she would listen to trusted loyalists, preferably, like Alfred Sherman or Norman Tebbit, cut from a very different cloth than Savile Row and Eton, she answered in the end to only two voices: the adamant song of her own inner convictions and the British people whom she believed she was liberating from a culture of socialist dependence, patriotic self-effacement and moral atrophy. The Falklands war was for her a matter of principled response to the presumption of a military fait accompli, but it was also in some sense the needful tonic (administered at the price of 650 Argentine and 250 British lives). “We have ceased,” she proclaimed at the end of it, “to be a nation in retreat.”

. . .

A demonstration in support of striking miners, Pontypridd, Wales, 1984©Rex Features

A demonstration in support of striking miners, Pontypridd, Wales, 1984

That she had the rare mettle of leadership no one can doubt. She did indeed change Britain, perhaps irreversibly, and it is unlikely that even those of us on the left-hand side of the column pine for the days when the country was a ward of court of the IMF and we lit our rooms with candles three days a week. But the Thatcherian clarity about the structural transformation of the British economy came with a certain Darwinian brutality when it came to considering the inevitable death of British manufacturing and mining. For that matter, when I last looked, cars and ships were still being made for the modern world and, however we feel about it, coal is being mined in ever greater quantities. Just not here, not in Britain, and it seems doubtful that she would want to be remembered for her ecological prescience.

Thatcher pictured in 1989 with her cabinet including (front row, from left) Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson©PA

Thatcher pictured in 1989 with her cabinet including (front row, from left) Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson

So how you feel about what Margaret Thatcher wrought depends from where exactly in Britain it is that you survey her memory. If you are of a certain age in Merthyr Tydfil or Sunderland I would guess you might feel differently about the Blessed Margaret, as St John-Stevas winsomely dubbed her, than if you currently reside in Bournemouth or Devizes. But if you are New Labour, as the fulsome tributes of Tony Blair and Ed Miliband reminded us, you have reason only to be deeply grateful, for if Margaret Thatcher did not quite, as David Cameron claimed, “save Britain”, she certainly saved the Labour party from self-immolating extinction. By ripping out from the body of political conservatism its economic and social centrism, she positioned New Labour to effect one of the most successful cross-aisle transplants in political history. The wets never died, they just changed party address.

For the doctrine that market capitalism, cut free from the sentimentally invented, morally enervating, fiscally crippling obligations of state-run social institutions, whether in education or health, can be the elixir of high-flying growth, sleekly self-regulating, managerially energetic, and perpetually dynamic, seems, in the face of our flatlining economy, a dark, sick joke. The sclerotic old system which Margaret Thatcher dispatched has been, in the end, replaced by an equally inert and complacent new one. So perhaps the best tribute that could be paid to the spirit of her life in politics (if not the letter of its law) would be if someone, somewhere, could come along in British public life – hell, in Europe – with the Thatcherian gumption to say, again, but this time to the unswerving disciples: this does not work, this will not stand. You have had your time; you have had your chance. Now be off with you.

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Simon Kuper on Thatcher abroad

In David Marsh’s book The Euro there is a hilarious cameo of Margaret Thatcher in Strasbourg in December 1989. This was the European summit where West Germany and France agreed to create the euro. But Thatcher’s mind was on greater things.

The Berlin Wall had fallen, she’d been reading books about the origins of Europe’s 20th-century wars, and in Strasbourg her mission was to block German reunification. “Twice we beat the Germans,” she told the other government leaders at dinner. “Now they are there again.” Meeting the French president, François Mitterrand, at the summit, she pulled maps of Germany’s pre- and postwar borders out of her handbag, writes Marsh. “Pointing to Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia, she told Mitterrand: ‘They’ll take all of that, and Czechoslovakia too.’”

I spent most of the Thatcher years outside the UK. I could see that she fascinated foreigners; she (and her handbag) lodged in the minds of even quite apolitical people. But if she personally seemed larger than life, it was an optical illusion. The mark she left on geopolitics was modest. And especially over Germany, her worldview sometimes led her into disastrous misjudgments.

Thatcher could never forget the outsize stature Britain had had in her youth. Born in 1925, she came from the generation whose formative geopolitical moment was standing alone against Germany in 1940 after continental Europe had caved. When she first stood for parliament in 1950, the UK still considered itself a superpower planning to hang on to its sizeable empire. She always seemed to believe that, with a bit of willpower, those days could be brought back. Just before becoming prime minister in 1979 she warned that, unless Britain changed, “our glories as a nation will soon be a footnote in history books … lost in the mists of time, like Camelot”.

Thatcher with Indira Gandhi at Westminster in 1978©Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

With Indira Gandhi at Westminster in 1978

Projecting Britain globally was, in her mind, inextricably linked with projecting herself globally. She became an international brand. Few foreigners noticed the passing of other recent British prime ministers (in Jim Callaghan’s case, few Britons noticed either), but her death is world news. In part, she stood out as a woman. However, like all great political communicators, she also was her own message: Winston Churchill was the British bulldog incarnate, Nelson Mandela embodied black South African reconciliation, and Thatcher was a woman of ordinary origins who had risen above the posh men just as anyone could if they had enough willpower. Great communicators can communicate without words.

In her mind, the Falklands war of 1982 restored those lost British glories. In victory, she joined a crowd of patriots singing “Britannia rules the waves” outside 10 Downing Street and told them: “Great Britain is great again.”

That claim became a campaign slogan for the 1987 election. But viewed from abroad, it just didn’t wash. Beating a fading military junta to retake a few small islands that most Britons had never previously heard of was less Churchill on D-day than Peter Sellers playing Duchess Gloriana XII of tiny Grand Fenwick in the spoof war film The Mouse That Roared. Yet Thatcher’s rhetoric cheered many Britons, who after decades of military decline craved a symbolic victory. The modern parallel would be Russians, after their own military decline, cheering Vladimir Putin’s war with Georgia in 2008.

Thatcher at RAF Brize Norton with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, en route to the US in 1987

At RAF Brize Norton with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev, en route to the US in 1987

Thatcher’s more significant role was in ending the cold war, if only as a junior player. Crucially, she had met Mikhail Gorbachev in London in 1984 while he was Soviet number two to Konstantin Chernenko. “I like Mr Gorbachev,” she said then. “We can do business together.” When Gorbachev became leader months later, and put feelers out to the US president Ronald Reagan, the Americans knew little about him. So they turned to Thatcher for advice.

Thatcher with President Reagan at the White House, 1987©Corbis

With President Reagan at the White House, 1987

Johnathan Miller, then a senior director at the US’s national security council, told me, “We hadn’t talked to the Soviet Union in so long. She had had an experience no one else had. It was like the first westerner who went to Japan in the 19th century: you may not be an expert but you’re the only one who’s been there.”

Thatcher briefed Reagan before his first summit with Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985. Miller says, “Reagan went in with a lot of confidence because most of all he took to heart what Maggie Thatcher told him: above all be wary of Gorbachev’s charm. Beware the smiling fox, in effect. Thatcher was Reagan’s sherpa for Gorbachev.”

At the elegant villa Fleur d’Eau beside Lake Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev kicked off the summit with a private meeting in a closed room, with only their interpreters present. It was meant to last a few minutes. In Miller’s memory, it went on for three-quarters of an hour. George Shultz, US secretary of state, sat outside the room getting anxious. “Get the president out of there,” he growled. Miller refused. Reagan and Gorbachev bonded, after which Thatcher lost much of her usefulness.

In Aspen, Colorado in 1990 she helped persuade President George H.W. Bush to go to war against Saddam Hussein over Kuwait. Miller says, “Within the Reagan and the first Bush White House she had a huge amount of influence.” But he adds, “Britain was an influential power but not a decision maker. Let’s face it, ever since Suez it’s been tough for Britain.”

. . .

Often Thatcher was dead wrong. On visits to South Africa in the 1980s, I got used to being button­holed by conservative whites wanting to eulogise my country’s prime minister. These whites felt beleaguered. Other western countries were telling them, in effect: “Apartheid is wrong. You aren’t a fortress of western civilisation in darkest Africa. We disown you.” But Thatcher didn’t. Famously, in 1987 she called the African National Congress “a typical terrorist organisation” (though the rest of the quote commonly attributed to her – “Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land” – seems to have come from her spokesman Bernard Ingham). She gave pro-apartheid whites solace. Still, in the end it scarcely mattered. As in most of the globe, Britain carried little weight in South Africa. The fantasies of revived greatness were just that.

Margaret Thatcher with Helmut Kohl, on a visit to British forces in Germany, 1986©AP

with Helmut Kohl, on a visit to British forces in Germany, 1986

In 1988 I began studying history and German at university. Anyone could see that German was going to replace English as the main continental language. I got that wrong, but living in Berlin when Germany reunified (I spent the night of reunification, October 3 1990, walking up and down the Unter den Linden avenue, marvelling at the lack of celebrations) I saw that Thatcher was equally wrong about Germany. Her notion of Chancellor Helmut Kohl marching the Bundeswehr across the Oder-Neisse line was never credible. Viewed from 1990s Berlin, it was in fact bonkers.

She had fundamentally misunderstood the most important European country. Like many people educated in the 1930s, Thatcher seemed to believe nations had unchanging essences. In 1990 she invited six Anglo American experts on Germany, mostly historians, to a seminar at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. Beforehand, her adviser Charles Powell had sent them a bizarre discussion paper with questions such as:

“What does history tell us about the charac­­ter and behaviour of the Germany-speaking [sic] people of Europe? Are there enduring national characteristics?”

“What will be the tendency of a united Germany? … Will it lurch inevitably and as often in history, towards geographical and territorial dominance?”

The experts told her the reunified Germans would be just fine. Yet Powell later summed up the conversation in a notorious memo: “Some even less flattering attributes were also mentioned as an abiding part of the German character: in alphabetical order, angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality.” (Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, parodied the memo along the lines of “Germans: wear moustaches, eat sausages” et cetera.)

Margaret Thatcher with François Mitterrand in Paris, 1990©Rex Features

With François Mitterrand in Paris, 1990

By then, in fact, Thatcher was finally giving in to her diplomats’ view that Britain should support reunification. A chemist, a lawyer and a details person, she was more pragmatic and responsive to data than her rhetoric suggested. She couldn’t have blocked reunification anyway: Hans-Dietrich Genscher, West Germany’s foreign minister, later recalled that her opposition never bothered him because the US supported reunification, and that was what mattered.

But on Germany, she switched too late. Not only did the UK irritate a key ally that had behaved impeccably for 45 years. Worse, by picking the wrong battle, Britain in that crucial winter of 1989-90 missed its best chance to strangle the euro at birth. Few Germans wanted monetary union. Kohl in October 1989 had told Mitterrand the time was “not ripe” for it. However, the French wanted it, and in Strasbourg Mitterrand dropped his own opposition to German reunification in return for Kohl giving him a European currency.

France used reunification as a bargaining chip to shape the European future. Thatcher, who never tried allying with the Germans against monetary union, was left impotently shouting, “No, no, no!” The episode is a classic example of how states don’t always cold-headedly pursue their interests but are sometimes misled by past ghosts.

A worldview based on the second world war and nostalgia for lost glories was common enough in Britain then. It just wasn’t a very good guide to the late 20th century.

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Thatcherabilia

Photographer Martin Parr on his collection

I started collecting her in the early 1980s after I saw an ad for a plate before a Conservative party conference. It was galling writing out a cheque to the Conservative party, but that’s how it began. I suppose it was my dislike of Mrs Thatcher that activated my desire to collect. After that I looked in car boot sales and about 15 years ago, when eBay started, that’s when I bought the bulk of the collection.

©Magnum Photos

I’ve got some anti-Thatcher pieces, such as the toilet paper and the dart board, as well as the memorabilia. I’ve also got my miners’ strike collection, which balances her out: I’m quite into the yin and yang of Thatcher. After her death my guess is there will be a lot of new stuff for sale on eBay. It was the same when Saddam Hussein died. I got a lot of my Saddam collection then. In fact [checking eBay] … look, somebody wants £10,000 for a leather-bound copy of The Path to Power. Can you believe it?

©Magnum Photos

I suppose I’ve got about 100 Thatcher objects. Some are currently on tour with an exhibition of my pictures in Zurich, others are in my archive in Bristol. I never photographed her. I never saw her physically, but it didn’t take much to realise she was going to be a significant prime minister.

©Magnum Photos

I’m sure, after her death, a whole lot of new memorabilia is being created. For instance, I’ve never seen a Thatcher watch. I’ve got lots of Saddam watches but I wonder [checking eBay again]. Yes! Look, here’s one, from Hong Kong, with her face in a heart shape. £19.90. There. Not bad. And free delivery. As we speak, I’ve bought it!”

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