If there’s one thing you can say about the British for all the stereotypes about their deference and emotional restraint, they have no problem letting is show when they hate someone. While public officials on the right, left and center give staid, pre-packaged statements about how much they respect and appreciate Thatcher the person, the venom let lose about her policy choices could flood the Thames. When downloads of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” jump from obscurity to # 9 on iTunes within 24 hours of her death, when there are spontaneous parties in London neighborhoods and ’80s rockers all but dancing on her grave it’s pretty obvious that the “Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher” didn’t have the warmest of legacies in the minds of many who lived during her days in power. On this side of the pond, there has been a disturbing tendency to call Thatcher and Reagan “Political Soulmates,” and many pundits have attempted to draw broad connections between the two great ’80s icons. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. While Ronald Reagan was a conservative, Thatcher was a radical and her legacy today should help us appreciate just how much better off we were to not have our own Iron Lady.
Thatcher’s neocon politics were incredibly outside of the mainstream in an England that still had a functional socialist wing in the opposition Labour party when she took office in 1979. But her beliefs weren’t just radical on state policy, but foreign policy as well; she was, in a way most Americans will never fully understand, a true believer in the British Empire and all it stood for. I actually met Margaret Thatcher in 1995 as a college student at the University of Virginia. She had been made Chancellor of William and Mary College in 1993 and through a college connection, I and a couple of friends from the Thomas Jefferson Debate Society at UVA were invited to a private closed door meeting with Thatcher for only about 20 students in a small classroom at William & Mary. Thatcher spoke briefly about her life and times and then opened up to questions. She was a fierce debater and she loved arguing with students no matter how aggressive the questions were about Palestine, the Cold War or even the Falkland Islands. But the question that stood out the most was when she was asked how she felt about British Colonialism and the oppression and degradation that empire had brought to so many nations in Africa, Asia and South America all the way into the 1960s. Thatcher’s Answer?
“We brought the rule of LAW to those people.”
That’s right, despite history, common sense and morality showing that colonialism was a blight on global history that retarded the advancement of several societies and set the ground work for countless blood wars Thatcher was a true believer. The British Empire, even what was left of it in 1995 had nothing to apologize for and never would. If anything, she yearned for a return to imperial glory. Thatcher’s lack of reflection or remorse about any of her policy decisions of those of her nation were stunning, she was really more Dick Cheney than Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan attacked unions, deregulated like crazy, lowered taxes on rich people and ratcheted up the Cold War like nobody’s business. Thatcher did all of these things as well, but the difference was that there was a precedent for Reagan. Many of his policies were hinted at as early as the late ’60s and early ’70s when he was governor of California and even as far back as the late ’40s and early ’50s when he was an actor dealing with the Red Scare in Hollywood. Reagan may have changed America, but America was changing already and he just pushed that wave along. Thatcher, on the other hand, ushered in policies that were at once unpopular and worse far beyond the pale of what even most Tories thought was necessary at the time. Privatizing large swaths of British transportation, ripping apart the social safety net and increasing taxes on the poor were radical moves at the time in England. This is not to say that Thatcher wasn’t loved, and that she wasn’t able to get re-elected in 1983 and 1987 but if you were to compare the end results of her time in office to Reagans the differences are quite stark.
When Reagan left office in 1988 the unemployment rate was down, Communism was destroyed, and his own party praised him until the day he died. Thatcher was kicked out of power by her own party in 1990, unemployment was better than we she took office but was still at unprecedented levels, and John Major managed to keep the Conservatives in power in part because he was NOT a pure Thatcherite.
Within a week, America will have forgotten about Margaret Thatcher as we return to our usual inward political focus. Like Gorbechev, Tony Blair and other major world leaders that Americans learn to love out of ignorance Thatcher will be fondly remembered here and associated with a mythological golden age of American culture called the 1980s. Let’s just not pretend that she was the British Reagan, for all of Ronnie’s many faults, he still managed his Reagan Revolution within the existing government that we all knew and loved. He didn’t rend the fabric of what made us Americans and hope that the holes didn’t show. That’s what Thatcher did, and we were lucky that being political soul-mates was more for publicity than policy.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.