Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Good Bye Mrs Thatcher – You Put the GREAT back into Britain

One of the most prominent figures of my childhood has died. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 died of a stroke at the age of 87 on the 8th of April, 2013.

By the time of her death, Baroness Thatcher (as she was officially known) had become something of a recluse in her final years. You might say calling her senile was an act of kindness.

The Margaret Thatcher that died was far removed from the Margaret Thatcher I grew up with in the early years that I lived in the UK. Mrs Thatcher, as she was then known, was THE dominant figure in British politics and she made her presence felt in European Union (then known as the EEC) and global meetings.
As a leader, she became known for holding onto positions that were vastly unpopular at the time. She was loathed in liberal establishments for appearing ‘unsympathetic’ to the plight of the poor, though she was revered in business circles for cutting taxes and deregulating things. She was unafraid to speak her mind – something which a few attributed to the downfall of her successor.

You could say the extreme feelings that she generated, made her one of the last politicians to be driven by ideology. The Economist Newspaper described her as the “Last Victorian,” a politician from an era that had long gone by.

As the tributes pour in for the departed, “Iron Lady,” there will undoubtedly be a flurry of editorials about her legacy. I would say that Baroness Thatcher was responsible for putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain.”

Let’s start with the obvious. When Mrs Thatcher took over the UK in 1979, the country was going through a period of social disruption. The unions, particularly the miners’ union (NUM) lead by Arthur Scargill were particularly militant (enough to bring down governments). The state controlled vast chunks that mattered and public services were a mess. The situation was such that it was impossible to run a small business let alone get rich (one of the reasons why the second most infamous member of the OCC made a dash to Africa).

Within a decade of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher had faced down the unions, slashed taxes and regulations. Entrepreneurs like Lord’s Hanson and White of Hanson PLC and Sir James Goldsmith became household names both in the UK and the USA. The disruption that such men caused to the established order helped unleash a bout of entrepreneurial activity on both sides of the Atlantic.

The best part about Mrs Thatcher’s creation of prosperity was the fact that it came from creating greater social mobility. In the words of Uncle Nick (A Brit who married my mother’s cousin, Auntie Terresa), “Thatcherism has made people in England work harder.” If you study the Sunday Times rich list of people in Britain, the number of ‘self-made’ men is growing and crowding out the Old Money of the aristocracy.

The Thatcher era for the UK was not just about economics or social change. It was about the victory of a set of ideas. The idea that individuals were responsible for their own lives rather than the state triumphed over the idea that the State knew best. This is most visible in the fact that the Labour Party under Tony Blair only became electable after they moved towards the Thatcherite point of view. The idea of privitisation has become nearly universal.

Mrs Thatcher did have her faults. Towards the end she seemed a bit too comfortable in her position of power and cut off from reality. She used the royal “We” in public – “WE are a grandmother.” She lied in public about the resignation of her chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Like her American contemporary, Ronald Regan, Mrs Thatcher had a way of being cozy with dictators (Suharto comes to mind).

You could even say that the current mess that the UK is in, is Mrs Thatcher’s belief that free markets are the answer to everything. The “Big Bang” in the 1980s made the City of London a global financial centre. This created jobs and wealth. However, you could argue that things were brought to an extreme. The UK became so dependent on finance that everything else was lost and there was very little to the UK other than the dreams of financiers to make more money out of nothing.

While there is a case for all of these arguments, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy should, on the whole, be considered a decent one. Under her leadership, Britain went from being a poor country run by a group of blind bureaucrats to a country that encourages innovation and rewards entrepreneurship from wherever you may come from. Surely that has to be considered progress.