Mrs. Thatcher’s predecessor as prime minister, the amiable but forgotten Sunny Jim Callaghan, once confided to a friend of mine that he thought Britain’s decline was irreversible and that the government’s job was to manage it as gracefully as possible. By 1979, even this modest aim seemed beyond the capabilities of the British establishment, and the nation turned to a woman who was one of the few even in a supposedly “conservative” party not to subscribe to the Callaghan thesis. She reversed the decline, at home and overseas. The Falklands War, inconsequential in and of itself, had a huge global significance: After Vietnam, the fall of the Shah, Cuban troops in Africa, and Soviet annexation of real estate from Cambodia to Grenada, the British routing of the Argentine junta stunned everyone from the politburo in Moscow to their nickel ’n’ dime clients in the presidential palaces, all of whom had figured the “free world” no longer had any fight in it.
As for the domestic front, on the silver jubilee of her premiership, I wrote an assessment in the Telegraph:
Just after the Fall of Thatcher, I was in the pub enjoying a drink with her daughter Carol after a little light radio work. A fellow patron, a “radical” “poet”, decided to have a go at her in loco parentis, which is Latin for “in the absence of her loco parent”. After reciting a long catalogue of Mrs Thatcher’s various crimes, he leant into Carol, nose to nose, and summed it all up: “Basically, your mum just totally smashed the working classes.”
Carol was a jolly good sport about it, as always. And it has to be said that this terrible indictment loses a lot of its force when you replace “Vatcher” — a word the snarling tribunes of the masses could effortlessly spit down the length of the bar — with “your mum”.
On the other hand, he had a point: basically, her mum did just totally smash the working classes.
That’s to say, she understood that the biggest threat to any viable future for Britain was a unionized public sector that had awarded itself a lifestyle it wasn’t willing to earn. So she picked a fight with it, and made sure she won. In the pre-Thatcher era, union leaders were household names, mainly because they were responsible for everything your household lacked. Britain’s system of government was summed up in the unlovely phrase “beer and sandwiches at Number Ten” — which meant union grandees showing up at Downing Street to discuss what it would take to persuade them not to go on strike, and being plied with the aforementioned refreshments by a prime minister reduced to the proprietor of a seedy pub, with the Cabinet as his barmaids.
In 1990, when Mrs. Thatcher was evicted from office by her ingrate party’s act of matricide, the difference she’d made was such that in all the political panel discussions on TV that evening no producer thought to invite any union leaders. No one knew their names anymore.
That’s the difference between a real Terminator, and a poseur like Schwarzenegger.
As to the force of her personality, at the Commonwealth Conference in (I think) Vancouver a couple of decades ago, they had a “dress-down Friday” thing for the final day: the chaps from Oz, Canada, Belize, Papua New Guinea, and whatnot showed up in slacks and open-necked shirts, and then Mrs Thatcher came downstairs dressed in the usual big blue power suit with the Eighties shoulder pads. I think it was Bob Hawke, the Aussie PM, who observed, “Forty-nine blokes in the right dress code, and one woman who isn’t. And she made us feel like the ones who’d got it wrong.”
The term “rest in peace” doesn’t seem quite right for Margaret Thatcher. I hope upstairs they’re getting out an extra large tumbler, and readying for some vigorous debate into the small hours.