I admired Margaret Thatcher the way I admired, feared (and loved) my mother. I didn’t share Thatcher’s politics but stood in awe when, through sheer conviction and resolve, she did what needed to be done. Both women were working-class but managed to go toe-to-toe with privilege. Both were charismatic and domineering, controversial and unafraid. Prime Minister Thatcher had a majority in Parliament to accomplish her agenda. My mother had me.
In 1979, Thatcher became leader of a country broken by bureaucracy and hobbled by strikes, with garbage rotting in the streets and bodies rotting in the morgue. Nothing seemed to work. The clotted cream went into the fridge on Monday but curdled when the electric power failed on Wednesday. Bureaucracy was swollen and inefficient. There were three-day work weeks and trains that didn’t run. The regulatory regime hadn’t kept pace with business or technology.
A shop owner’s daughter trained as a chemist, Thatcher was a conviction politician. She had a hide tough enough to endure harsh criticism and the will to ram through painful changes, such as shrinking government and privatizing services and building a regulatory environment in which business could thrive. Simplistic at times, she preached personal responsibility and self-reliance: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
Thatcher didn’t wait for public opinion, or other politicians, to catch up with her. One joke circulating at the time had her ordering a steak at a restaurant with fellow politicians. “What about the vegetables?” the waiter asked. “They’ll have the steak, too,” she answered.
Thatcherism’s debut was inauspicious, occasioning massive demonstrations. Liberals hated her, although she kept some of the safety net, including the National Health Service and public housing. By the end of 1981, her favorability rating had sunk to 25 percent. Gradually, though, life began to improve and so did her standing. A rising tide lifted some, if not all, boats. Jobs were created. Credit was loosened enough for the man in the street to get a loan, and businesses started taking risks again. A bite-sized war helped -- the 1982 drama in the Falklands, where she battled an Argentine dictator over the fate of some patriotic British sheep.
Backing her at every turn was U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Their alliance was stronger than the sum of its parts. She said she could work with Mikhail Gorbachev, and if the “Iron Lady” could, Reagan figured he could too. Together they ended the Cold War.
An attempt on Thatcher’s life in 1984, which killed five in a Brighton hotel where she was speaking, only increased her resolve. However, Thatcher’s steel spine was often inflexible. Peace with the Irish Republican Army eluded her and she (like Reagan) was morally blind to apartheid in South Africa. When Reagan was replaced by President George H.W. Bush, Thatcher worried that Bush was too timid to master a violent world. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, she told him, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George.”
Like Thatcher, my mother never went wobbly. She had a family in distress to lead and she did it without concern for her approval ratings. I adored my civil-servant father but followed my mother. Confronted with a difficult and expensive trauma -- due to an epileptic seizure, my older brother, Jimmy, was severely brain-damaged at birth -- she wrestled it down and pinned it.
There would be no sending my brother off to costly private care. Instead, my mother engineered an only occasionally hostile takeover of the neighborhood, the parish and our school. I was told to inform the neighborhood kids that if you want me on your team, you have to take Jimmy, too. My parents couldn’t go out to parties, so the parties came to us. Jimmy couldn’t read, but he helped churn ice cream, bake bread and grow watermelons.
The parish school didn’t want to take Jimmy, but my mother, having slowly acquired power, didn’t hesitate to wield it. She had initiated lucrative Friday-night bingo, which had ingratiated her to the pastor. In addition, she had built a kitchen to make hot lunches, paved an adjacent lot for a playground and planted a weedy field to accommodate baseball and hockey. Jimmy polished the chalices while my mother oversaw the Altar Guild, sewing, starching and ironing the linens. By the time my brother was ready for school, she had made the school ready for him.
I believe in the Great Man, and certainly Woman, theory of history. I recognized Thatcher’s greatness because I had seen a version of it up close, exerting power, shaping destinies, transforming not a nation but a neighborhood. She and my mother were great, tough, unyielding women whose philosophy I didn’t always agree with but whose leadership I couldn’t resist. Like Thatcher’s legacy, my mother’s lives on. For 30 years, Jimmy has been an usher at 7:30 Mass. Every Sunday.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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