Monday, July 24, 2017

Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy

“I am not quite like Margaret Thatcher, no. But on the other hand I am no Mother Teresa, either,” State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi replied to the BBC’s special correspondent Fergal Keane in April.

Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy, by Sir David Cannadine, is published by Oxford University Press. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesMargaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy, by Sir David Cannadine, is published by Oxford University Press. Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

Mr Keane asked her whether people in the West mischaracterised her as an amalgam of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, while actually she is more similar in her determination and steeliness to Thatcher.

UK leaders such as Prime Minister Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have often been compared and contrasted with Britain’s first and, until last year, only woman prime minister. The comparison has now reached Daw Suu, as debates about her leadership style emerge amid the country’s progress and struggles.

Both Daw Suu and Thatcher’s biographical films were released in 2011 as well. Both productions shared a similar title: The Lady for the former and The Iron Lady for the latter.

But those are not the only names they are known for – far from it.

People in Myanmar call their leading political figure bwartaw (old lady), aphwargyi (very old lady), amay (mother) and may may (mommy).

Thatcher was the “Good Housewife” or the “Grocer’s Daughter”. She was the “Warrior Queen”, or even “Britannia” or “Gloriana”. To her admirers, she was “Maggie” or “the Blessed Margaret”. To her critics, she was “milk-snatcher”, “That Bloody Woman” or “Attila the Hen”.

In Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy, the leading historian Sir David Cannadine sets Margaret Thatcher in the broader context of her time.

“Thatcher’s prime ministership combine a unique personal story with an extraordinary political dominance, and both were rendered the more remarkable on account of her gender,” the historian wrote, and he illuminated her story with an impressive feat of compression and comprehensiveness.

Out of eight chapters, the first charts Thatcher’s upbringing, the influences of her parents (and especially of her father), how Oxford transformed her life and how she gradually moved away from Grantham. Chapter two surveys her political career before becoming the premier. The next three chapters deal with her governance, episodes of struggles and controversies, the Falklands war and her confrontations against the Greater London Council and Arthur Scargill, as well as the Westland affair. The last two chapters summarise her downfall and aftermath.

“No male prime minister had ever been known by so many admiring and vituperative sobriquets. Was this sexism, or celebrity, or both?” the author wondered.

Those many names in which she became known through her years in power suggest the contradictions and identities, fear and fantasies of Margaret Thatcher.

Her Falklands episode and her approach in cabinet meetings, announcing at the beginning of each item for discussion the conclusion that she wanted to reach, contributed to her image as assertive, domineering and aggressive, attributes which are commonly associated with alpha males. Barbara Castle complained that she was completely insensitive to difficulties faced by ordinary women; the Queen’s press secretary deliberately leaked to the Sunday Times in 1986 that Her Majesty was “dismayed” by Thatcher’s “uncaring prime minister”.

“In yet another guise she was a latter-day Queen Boudicca, urging her troops into battle, who delighted in donning combat gear or being photographed in a British army tank.

“Or she was Lady Bracknell, a century on, for whom the handbag was an instrument of gendered aggression, rather than an essential repository for make-up,” Cannadine observed.

“She certainly learned to have determination, tenacity and persistence, and to have courage to have her own convictions, and to have a low opinion of other people who do not share that courage of their own conviction,” the historian said during a seminar about his book.

Deng Xiaoping greets Margaret Thatcher in the Great Hall of the People before the signing of the Joint Declaration. Photo - XinhuaDeng Xiaoping greets Margaret Thatcher in the Great Hall of the People before the signing of the Joint Declaration. Photo - Xinhua

“If you cannot make up your own mind, I’ll make it up for you,” Thatcher once told her cabinet colleague.

But the “Iron Lady” also cried in public: when she failed to get her way at Lusaka during discussions over Rhodesia; when her son, Mark, disappeared during a trans-Sahara motor rally; and when she made her final journey from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace.

Cannadine observed that, thus, Thatcher was a bundle of gendered contradictions, which “by sheer force of personality she concealed and carried off with sustained bravura and conviction”.

As the subject of both adulation and vilification, it is no mean task to place Thatcher’s legacy, impact and controversy in the context of recent British history.

Cannadine must be commended because he has paid sufficient attention to the full picture.

Thatcher was supported by a self-effacing husband whose money and support made her public career possible, a fortune not shared by Golda Meir, fourth Prime Minister of Israel who, too, worked in her family’s grocery shop, but did not have an affluent and supportive spouse.

Did her life and achievements rank on the same epic scale as Lord Nelson, the first Duke of Wellington, and Sir Winston Churchill?

“From one perspective, the answer must be no,” the historian noted. This late colonial expedition was not a victory to equal the battle of Trafalgar, the battle of Waterloo, or the battle of Britain.

Yet, all those leaders were born in circumstances more advantageous than Thatcher’s. Cannadine then sets out the comparisons with Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and others. Thatcher’s social origins were inferior to Disraeli’s, and closer to Lloyd George’s and Bonar Law’s, but they were superior to those of Ramsay MacDonald, James Callaghan and John Major. In addition, unlike any of them, she enjoyed two huge advantages: an Oxford education which brought her into the elite circles and a rich spouse.

Thatcher is the only twentieth-century premier to give her name to an ideology, but Cannadine rightly pointed out that “Thatcherism” was a political phenomenon rather than a coherent philosophy. By citing plenty of examples, the historian showed the contradictions and inconsistencies of Margaret Thatcher.

She stressed her unswerving convictions and dislike of consensus, as she led the UK to war against Argentina and as she uttered the famous phrase “no, no, no” in response to calls for greater centralised control in Europe. Yet, in other cases, such as the negotiations on Hong Kong’s future, the Single European Act (1986) and the Channel tunnel, she could be more compromising than she admitted in public.

She boasted her integrity and preached the politics of morality, but resorted to devious means to undermine her colleagues, as the shambles of the Westland affair reveals.

She denounced classic politics, but her rhetoric and politics championed the lower and middle-middle class, while she disdained the traditional working class, the public-school boys and most of the aristocracy.

She did more than anyone else to disrupt the political consensus between 1945-79, and British politics continued to play out in her shadow after her fall and death. But she was also the beneficiary of wider historical trends and changes which had nothing specific to do with her: the UK’s shift from a northern-based industrial economy to a consumer-oriented service economy would have happened without her, and the recession of late 1970s and early 1980s was a global phenomenon which triggered a widespread turn to the right.

In illuminating these perspectives and comparisons, insights and analysis, Cannadine demystifies Thatcher’s legacy. In the end, the historian is successful in setting the “Iron Lady” in the broader historical context.

There are additional lessons for us.

Oxford laid the foundations of Thatcher’s political career.

During her years in power, Thatcher relied more and more on closed-door advisers instead of elected members of parliament.

The “Iron Lady” also never really took the command as she seemed to. “Thatcher was never popular with most of the electorate,” the historian remarked. Her landslide election victories were made possible by the spilt in opposition due to the emergence of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

She was also “only prime minister of the south-east of England and the rural constituencies” in any representative sense, being essentially uninterested in the regions of the country which the poll tax and actions on miners damaged and disrupted.

Charles Moore’s biography made it plain that “she always knew she was a woman in the men’s world and that sooner or later they’d be out to get her.” And, eventually, they did. This sense of insecurity, coupled by other insecurities, was central to her dealings with her colleagues and other countries, the media and the monarch.

From this perspective, some circumstances look eerily similar to modern day Myanmar.

In March, the Guardian even quoted a diplomat as comparing “The Lady” to the “Iron Lady”.

“Many of the people who led the campaign [to free Daw Suu] … were more on the liberal side of the spectrum,” one diplomat told the Guardian. “I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher.”

Whether Daw Suu is comparable to Thatcher or not, she and other leaders can learn a lot by reading Cannadine’s succinct and scholarly summary of the achievements and failures of the “Iron Lady”.


Professor Sir David Cannadine is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and General Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His most recent publications include The Undivided Past (2013) and George V: the Unexpected King (2014), as well as the series Prime Ministers’ Props for BBC Radio 4 (2016).