• Friday, May 24, 2024
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Thatcher’s paradoxes

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 As promised last week, I am bound to return to the obsessive subject of Margaret Hilda (Baroness) Thatcher. Her ‘ceremonial’ funeral, an unusual event, to put it mildly, has thrust up many bizarre insights. And, interestingly enough, the hammer-banging handbag-swinging debate about what she stood for, including especially her legacy, has revolved a great deal around the subject I broached last week, the problem of wealth, especially as it relates to power.

Between her death on April 8 and her funeral on April 16, there was a magnificent re-run of the passionate arguments for and against her policies and her person that occurred in the 1980s. In so doing it has been possible to observe a number of paradoxes that contain some profound contradictions. Above all there is the question of divisiveness, which some of her more ardent champions have been trying to deny. One former minister blamed the BBC for even using the word ‘divisive’, clear evidence that the slavish devotion she inspired can cause total denial.

This deep paradox was seen in her words on entering Downing Street in 1979 quoting St Francis of Assisi’s “where there is discord let there be harmony” when few have brought less harmony than she did. The denial has been pursued by her successors in the Conservative party who tried to make her funeral a repeat of that of Winston Churchill, although she herself had said “I am not Winston”. This leads to the powerful contradictions of her rule, like the deepening of the gaps between north and south of the country and between rich and poor, which have both been a factor in growing separatism in Scotland and Wales.

As Britain’s first woman prime minister, she was a feminist icon who was no feminist – who could not tolerate other women in her cabinet. Although lauded as a realist and a scientist who liked evidence-based activity, she was capable of stubborn emotional reactions, seen in her astonishing victory against the odds in the Falklands war, which helped the country to recover a certain self-confidence but also set it on the path to an inability to adjust to the realities of the modern world, a fantasy retreat that even encouraged the present irrational Europhobia.

It is perhaps her economic policies that are the most durable – the pendulum swing away from state-led socialistic policies towards deregulation, with more emphasis on private enterprise. This was part of a wider change in the international climate which had its own impact in Africa. Thatcher was also identified with the much-lauded privatisation which in Britain was accompanied by de-industrialisation. In the Thatcher era, the ‘big bang’ helped build up the City of London but this was a part of the great boom that also precipitated the 2008 crash.

Likewise the Brixton riots of 1981, a protest against societal racism, especially in the police, set in motion the real progress Britain has made towards multiculturalism. And the same Thatcherite deregulation also encouraged the immigration which has also been a growing feature of 21st century Britain. Thus does conflict bring progress in an almost Toynbee-ish manifestation of ‘challenge and response’.

I have not left myself much space for her views on Africa. These have focused on her negative take on apartheid South Africa, for her resolute opposition to sanctions as a way to bring the apartheid regime to an end brought her much opprobrium, and it is notable that no African leader other than De Klerk, former South African premier, came to the funeral. There have been attempts by De Klerk, as well as Robin Renwick, former British High Commissioner in South Africa, to clean up the Thatcher image by presenting her as an important force in helping to end the apartheid regime and release Nelson Mandela. But would change have happened if there had not been the original threat of violence from the ANC (her ‘terrorist’ organisation) and the real menace that sanctions, especially disinvestment, posed to the South African economy in which so much British investment was at stake?

One does not doubt a certain truth in the De Klerk-Renwick version, but was the lady the prime mover? Her basic affinities were with the white community, and if she changed her position it was with those interests in mind, however bigger the picture of a multi-racial future.

It took time to persuade her that the ANC was the horse to back, but when it came to it she was capable of analysing evidence and taking decisions accordingly. The same applied to the way she reacted to the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe situation not long after she came to power in 1979. Her instincts (and those of the party she led) were all against handing power to the nationalists, but the influence of the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth II at the Lusaka summit, gave the push to inevitable change. Even so, Thatcher’s image in Africa was enduringly negative: tellingly, there were no African leaders apart from De Klerk at her funeral.

 

KAYE WHITEMAN

From London

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