On November 28, 1990, the entire world could see Margaret Thatcher crying. The Iron Lady of British politics, who for over a decade had been whipping her domestic and foreign opponents into line, was now standing in tears in front of 10 Downing Street for the very last time. After more than 11 years as the British Prime Minister she was leaving politics forever. The impact she had on it can be seen to this day.
How did it happen that the first woman in British history to run a government also became the longest-serving Prime Minister in the twentieth century? Political genius – say her supporters. The unique confluence of lucky circumstances – reply her opponents. Both groups have strong arguments to support their claims.
Gravediggers on strike and a tragicomic war
When in 1979 she took over as the Prime Minister, Great Britain was the “sick man of Europe.” At the end of 1978, still under the Labour Party government, strikes broke out one after another starting what would later be known as the “winter of discontent.” Blackouts became a part of everyday life, garbage littered the streets and in Liverpool even gravediggers refused to do their job. Inflation and unemployment soared. The Conservative Party campaign slogan – “Labour is not working” – aptly reflected the public mood. Thatcher won decisively but was it her own strength that secured victory or just the weakness or her opponents?
When a year after her government was formed the economy only got worse, Mrs. Thatcher – despite a growing pressure from her own party – refused to change the course and carried on with even larger spending cuts and even faster privatization of public wealth. Her popularity plummeted and the conservatives would probably have lost the next election if it had not been for a stroke of luck brilliantly played out by the Prime Minister. On April 2, 1982, Argentine attacked the Falkland Islands – tiny British archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean. Hardly anybody expected a military response but Thatcher accused Argentinian military junta of violating British sovereignty and – again defying her colleagues and even president Ronald Reagan – sent 40,000 British soldiers to recapture the islands and free their 2000 inhabitants. The victory in this tragicomic war made many Britons once again proud of their country and boosted Prime Minister’s popularity. Again, the question arises – what was the major cause behind Thatcher’s decision? Idealism, great ability to catch social mood or pure luck?
The war on miners, bombs in Brighton and the starving Irish
Luck smiled on Thatcher during her first term in office at least one more time. It was at that time the British started to extract large oil resources discovered around the Scottish North Sea coast not long before. The revenues it brought not only helped to patch the budget but also made British economy less coal dependent and consequently weakened the position of miners. Thatcher noticed this shift in the balance of power. At the turn of 1984 and 1985 she challenged the powerful coal miners unions and finally broke their resistance.
In her fight with the miners Thatcher was helped by yet another lucky but at the same time tragic event. On October 12, 1984, at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, in which the Conservative Party held its annual conference, a bomb was detonated by the IRA. Thatcher not only survived the attack, but just a few hours later delivered her speech as planned. The assassination attempt was the result of Thatcher’s tough policy on the IRA three years earlier when the Irish separatists detained in prison went on hunger strike. The Prime Minister refused to meet their demands even when 10 strikers starved themselves to death. Her tenacity once again won her sympathy of many Britons tired of the ongoing struggles with Irish separatists.
Despite all that, in the next elections in 1987 Conservatives would have once again faced a difficult struggle if it had not been for a little bit of help from…the Labour Party. After the defeat in 1979 British left suffered a major split. A group of secessionists left Labour to establish the Social Democratic Party which soon later formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Consequently, instead of uniting against Thatcher, the British left-wing electorate became dramatically divided, thus burying its chances to change the government. Was the new center-left formation doomed to failure from the beginning or was it Thatcher that brought it down? Opponents and supporters of the Prime Minister cannot agree on that matter up to this day.
Not surprisingly there is also no consensus as to whether Thatcher managed to fulfill promises she made. Did Britain become “great” once again? Her supporters reply in the positive and point out the leverage Britain enjoyed at the global scene at that time. Opponents argue these influences were largely illusory and were largely the result of Ronald Reagan’s personal affinity for Thatcher. While Britons were lured to believe they were once again an equal partner for the U.S, they were not.
Has Thatcher managed to fix the British economy? There is no agreement either. The influence trade unions had on British politics in the 1970s was significant and out of control. Thatcher, rather than to renegotiate the relations between the state and the unions preferred to destroy the latter. At the same time, by liberalizing the markets (including financial markets) she let another genie out of the bottle that soon beyond the control of the British political class. That is why the current financial crisis had such a disastrous impact on British economy. Five years after Lehman Brothers collapsed, British GDP continues to shrink and the austerity measures introduced by the current Conservative government (and to large extent modeled on Thatcherism) have not brought positive results.
Has therefore Margaret Thatcher restored the “greatness” of Great Britain? Even if that was the case, she is also responsible for its loss soon afterwards as Britain once again flounders.
Łukasz Pawłowski is a managing editor at ‘Kultura Liberalna’ and a PhD candidate at the Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw.