The media have been full of tributes and commentary following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Several biographies have already been written on her and she herself produced a superb set of memoirs of her life, especially her political life. Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, has just completed the first volume of her authorised biography, with publication scheduled for after her funeral, and I suspect more books will follow in due course.
A recurring theme is that she was a conviction politician, one sorely missed in this era of facsimile political leaders who are too timid to stake their name on any policy without first conducting an opinion poll or focus group to see how the political wind might be blowing.
Another theme is that she was a divisive figure, adored by those who saw great merit in her economic policies and loathed by those who despaired of the sometimes regrettable social consequences of those policies. To be candid, the humanitarian impact of the destruction of the National Union of Miners, necessary though it was, was corrosive of the social fabric of those mining communities.
It is a truism, however, that capitalism, to be effective, must engage in creative destruction. The Britain of which Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 was an almost economically bankrupt nation with decrepit infrastructure, appalling industrial relations, uncompetitive industries and held to ransom by rampant, thuggish trade unions that had caused the collapse of two democratically-elected governments and literally brought the nation to its knees. There were frequent power cuts, with much of the productive economy reduced to working a three-day week, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and even some morgues were full to bursting with bodies that could not be buried due to all manner of industrial action. It is hard to imagine, looking at Britain today, how truly abysmal life was in the UK in the “winter of discontent” in 1978/79, especially if you had travelled here from Nigeria to enjoy a summer holiday financed by a petroleum-induced over-inflated naira.
Any leader who was going to fix such a broken nation was bound to generate hostility from those who were going to be the losers. The trade unions had to lose. And they lost decisively. The grocer’s daughter from Grantham ushered in an era of economic liberalism that saw the privatisation of British Telecommunications, British Gas, British Leyland, British Airways and so many other formerly state-owned companies that had contributed to the almost total economic destruction of this nation. The IMF had to bail out the UK economy in 1976. One can hardly remember that it used to take up to six months to get a private telephone line in the UK and telephones came in only one colour – black. The telecoms privatisation (together with the break-up of the AT&T monopoly in the US) laid the groundwork for the pluralistic communications bonanza that has since metastasised into today’s mobile telecoms environment.
Those policies of economic liberalism were copied worldwide, from South East Asia to Latin America and eventually to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The benefits are still rippling through the world economy as the world’s middle classes continue to expand and millions are lifted out of poverty. It also finally nailed shut the coffin of socialism and confined that pernicious ideology into the dustbin of history. Well, almost. The job isn’t yet complete in Africa, as the many ills of Nigeria too readily illustrate. Too many Nigerians remain obdurate in their failure to accept the necessity of economic liberalism as the permanent antidote to a corrupt and over-weaning state but I will leave that argument for another day.
Lady Thatcher was not infallible, however; she was wrong on the poll tax and got South Africa completely wrong. As much as she abhorred apartheid, she regarded the ANC as a terrorist organisation and failed to grasp the significance of Nelson Mandela as a necessary partner to F. W. de Klerk in building a new South Africa. Then again, how could she not have been wrong, sometimes, even very wrong? As Shakespeare had noted centuries earlier, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill, together. Our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our virtues.”
Awotesu currently works as an analyst at an investment firm in London, United Kingdom.
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world has lost an iconic statesman and is slightly less magnificent today. Margaret Hilda Thatcher, nee Roberts, Baroness of Kesteven, rest in peace. You have done exceedingly well.