(Corrects date of 1992 Conservative Party victory in 12th paragraph.)
The “ideological legacy” of Margaret Thatcher, according to the Economist, rivals “that of Marx, Mao, Gandhi or Reagan.” She made “Britain great again,” the Daily Telegraph asserts. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the historian Andrew Roberts hails Thatcher for her loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, and claims that “Thatcherism will always remain, and the world is better for it.”
Observing such effusions on both sides of the Atlantic from Japan, whose conservative prime minister wants to be seen as “tough” as Thatcher, I wondered if the trait of worshipping “strong” leaders is exclusive to authoritarian societies.
Some Anglo-Americans need to cherish their old heroes and heroines as Britain seems further than ever from being made great again. But then political dysfunction and economic setbacks have made this a disorienting time for many people in even non-Western democracies: The Indian middle class routinely chooses the authoritarian-minded Indira Gandhi, the original “Iron Lady,” whose career Thatcher closely followed, as India’s greatest prime minister.
Many Indian commentators clamored to stand with the “English-speaking peoples” saluting Thatcher, though their me-too fervor may have been damped by the Australian foreign minister’s revelation that she made “unabashedly racist” comments about Indians to him.
Amid this general paucity of nuance, China’s ultranationalist Global Times unexpectedly made some good points while remaining reliably jingoistic. Assessing Thatcher’s legacy, it argued that she owed much of her prominence to her time, “a golden era for politicians,” in which leaders such as Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand and Mikhail Gorbachev made momentous decisions.
Like most of the Chinese press, the Global Times didn’t refrain from gloating over how China’s own great leader Deng Xiaoping vanquished Thatcher in 1982.
Glowing from victory against Argentina earlier that year, Thatcher had come to Beijing to push for a greater role for the U.K. in Hong Kong after the expiration of its lease on the island. But Deng, making abundant use of his spittoon, assailed her with a long and angry lecture on the evils of British imperialism in China.
Soon after this barracking, Thatcher stumbled on the steps of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The widely circulated photo of the British prime minister on her knees became a sign to many Chinese nationalists of the oncoming destruction of Western imperial pretensions.
In any case, there was never much doubt about the winner in the jejune race to look “tough.” Thatcher had suffered briefly the disadvantages of being a woman born in the wrong class. But Deng had survived the Long March and then Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Thatcher emasculated the U.K.’s most powerful trade unions and condemned thousands of miners to unemployment. But Deng supervised “anti-rightist purges” in the 1950s, sending half a million people to early death, long imprisonment and exile. Seven years after meeting Thatcher, he would send tanks against demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
Furthermore, the resurgence of global capitalism hailed as Thatcher’s, and Reagan’s, achievement is more accurately credited to Deng. His reforms set China on the path to its extraordinary economic eminence; his heirs today can boast of subsidizing the West’s debt-fueled consumerism.
The Global Times claims that “the win-win spirit China brings to international politics is expanding.” The absurd exaggeration shouldn’t distract from the possibility that Thatcher’s most lasting legacy in both domestic and international politics will be a lose-lose spirit.
Mass hatred of Thatcher’s greatest legatee -- Tony Blair -- has made it all but impossible for the former prime minister to appear in public in the U.K. since leaving office. Her Conservative Party has failed to win a single election on its own since 1992, and looks further than ever from achieving that once simple feat.
The proof, especially for the empirically minded British, ought to be the pudding. And the U.K.’s dire straits today -- diplomatic isolation within Europe, a contracting economy, growing public revulsion against the Tory-led government’s policy of austerity -- show that though Thatcherism may always remain, Britain, let alone the world, is not better for it.
The culture of aggressive individualism Thatcher helped create undermined the values her party had always espoused -- those of tradition, faith, community and family -- and led to what David Cameron now bewails as Britain’s “broken society.”
The Anglo-American attempt to enlist Thatcher as a proto-neocon doesn’t convince either. She denounced Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, and castigated the U.S. for ignoring Israel’s growing West Bank settlements.
What does seem indisputable is that Thatcher flourished in a political culture of unprecedented mediocrity. She benefited from having such hopeless opponents as former Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Labour leader Michael Foot, who was notorious for his unspooling syntax, and the trade unionist Arthur Scargill, who also didn’t know when to stop.
In the end, Thatcher herself went too far with what the journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft called her “historically essential mission” in a country looking to be released from its crippling contract with a Keynesianism that in the 1970s was well past its sell-by-date. An exponent of creative destruction, she failed to rebuild Britain’s industrial strength, which has declined more precipitously since her time.
She may have been as helpless as her ideological heirs, New Labour and Cameron’s Tories, who have tried to compensate for domestic disappointments and incapacity with military adventures in Asia and Africa and a self-flattering revisionism about the British Empire. Yet disaster and humiliation, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, have attended British military forays.
As the Global Times puts it, “The moment makes the man, or in this case, the woman. After Thatcher left office, there haven’t been any ‘iron men’ or ‘iron ladies,’ partly because the decline in European power means they cannot uphold an iron stance.”
Watching the slow-marching mourners at Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, the great essayist V.S. Pritchett described a “stirred London” and the “general emotion” that “we were seeing our own lives.”
Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral on Wednesday, attended by the queen, will no doubt make many British -- and American -- eyes similarly moist. But Pritchett also felt -- and his words ring truer today -- that he was “looking at a past utterly irrecoverable” and a “mean” future in which Britain would become to the larger world “one more irrelevant folk culture.”
(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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