A few hours after Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday, the snarling deadbeats of the British underclass were gleefully rampaging through the streets of Brixton in South London, scaling the marquee of the local fleapit and hanging a banner announcing, “THE BITCH IS DEAD.” Amazingly, they managed to spell all four words correctly. By Friday, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” from The Wizard of Oz, was the No. 1 download at Amazon U.K.
Mrs. Thatcher would have enjoyed all this. Her former speechwriter John O’Sullivan recalls how, some years after leaving office, she arrived to address a small group at an English seaside resort to be greeted by enraged lefties chanting “Thatcher Thatcher Thatcher! Fascist fascist fascist!” She turned to her aide and cooed, “Oh, doesn’t it make you feel nostalgic?” She was said to be delighted to hear that a concession stand at last year’s Trades Union Congress was doing a brisk business in “Thatcher Death Party Packs,” almost a quarter-century after her departure from office.
Of course, it would have been asking too much of Britain’s torpid Left to rouse themselves to do anything more than sing a few songs and smash a few windows. In The Wizard of Oz, the witch is struck down at the height of her powers by Dorothy’s shack descending from Kansas to relieve the Munchkins of their torments. By comparison, Britain’s Moochkins were unable to bring the house down: Mrs. Thatcher died in her bed at the Ritz at a grand old age. Useless as they are, British socialists were at one point capable of writing their own anti-Thatcher singalongs rather than lazily appropriating Judy Garland blockbusters from MGM’s back catalogue. I recall in the late Eighties being at the National Theatre in London and watching the crowd go wild over Adrian Mitchell’s showstopper, “F**k-Off Friday,” a song about union workers getting their redundancy notices at the end of the week, culminating with the lines:
“I can’t wait for
That great day when
Comes to Number Ten.”
You should have heard the cheers.
Alas, when F**k-Off Friday did come to 10 Downing Street, it was not the Labour party’s tribunes of the masses who evicted her but the duplicitous scheming twerps of her own cabinet, who rose up against her in an act of matricide from which the Tory party has yet to recover. In the preferred euphemism of the American press, Mrs. Thatcher was a “divisive” figure, but that hardly does her justice. She was “divided” not only from the opposition party but from most of her own, and from almost the entire British establishment, including the publicly funded arts panjandrums who ran the likes of the National Theatre and cheerfully commissioned one anti-Thatcher diatribe after another at taxpayer expense. And she was profoundly “divided” from millions and millions of the British people, perhaps a majority.
Nevertheless, she won. In Britain in the Seventies, everything that could be nationalized had been nationalized, into a phalanx of lumpen government monopolies all flying the moth-eaten flag: British Steel, British Coal, British Airways, British Rail . . . The government owned every industry — or, if you prefer, “the British people” owned every industry. And, as a consequence, the unions owned the British people. The top income-tax rate was 83 percent, and on investment income 98 percent. No electorally viable politician now thinks the government should run airlines and car plants and that workers should live their entire lives in government housing. But what seems obvious to all in 2013 was the bipartisan consensus four decades ago, and it required an extraordinary political will for one woman to drag her own party, then the nation, and subsequently much of the rest of the world back from the cliff edge.
Thatcherite denationalization was the first thing Eastern Europe did after throwing off its Communist shackles — although the fact that recovering Soviet client states found such a natural twelve-step program at Westminster testifies to how far gone Britain was. She was the most consequential woman on the world stage since Catherine the Great, and Britain’s most important peacetime prime minister. In 1979, Britain was not at war, but as much as in 1940 faced an existential threat.
Mrs. Thatcher saved her country — and then went on to save a shriveling “free world,” and what was left of its credibility. The Falklands were an itsy bitsy colonial afterthought on the fringe of the map, costly to win and hold, easy to shrug off — as so much had already been shrugged off. After Vietnam, the Shah, Cuban troops in Africa, Communist annexation of real estate from Cambodia to Afghanistan to Grenada, nobody in Moscow or anywhere else expected a Western nation to go to war and wage it to win. Jimmy Carter, a ditherer who belatedly dispatched the helicopters to Iran only to have them crash in the desert and sit by as cocky mullahs poked the corpses of U.S. servicemen on TV, embodied the “leader of the free world” as a smiling eunuch. Why in 1983 should the toothless arthritic British lion prove any more formidable?
And, even when Mrs. Thatcher won her victory, the civilizational cringe of the West was so strong that all the experts immediately urged her to throw it away and reward the Argentine junta for its aggression. “We were prepared to negotiate before” she responded, “but not now. We have lost a lot of blood, and it’s the best blood.” Or as a British sergeant said of the Falklands: “If they’re worth fighting for, then they must be worth keeping.”
Mrs. Thatcher thought Britain was worth fighting for, at a time when everyone else assumed decline was inevitable. Some years ago, I found myself standing next to her at dusk in the window of a country house in the English East Midlands, not far from where she grew up. We stared through the lead diamond mullions at a perfect scene of ancient rural tranquility — lawns, the “ha-ha” (an English horticultural innovation), and the fields and hedgerows beyond, looking much as it would have done half a millennium earlier. Mrs. T asked me about my corner of New Hampshire (90 percent wooded and semi-wilderness) and then said that what she loved about the English countryside was that man had improved on nature: “England’s green and pleasant land” looked better because the English had been there. For anyone with a sense of history’s sweep, the strike-ridden socialist basket case of the British Seventies was not an economic downturn but a stain on national honor.
A generation on, the Thatcher era seems more and more like a magnificent but temporary interlude in a great nation’s bizarre, remorseless self-dissolution. She was right and they were wrong, and because of that they will never forgive her. “I have been waiting for that witch to die for 30 years,” said Julian Styles, 58, who was laid off from his factory job in 1984, when he was 29. “Tonight is party time. I am drinking one drink for every year I’ve been out of work.” And when they call last orders and the final chorus of “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” dies away, who then will he blame?
During the Falklands War, the prime minister quoted Shakespeare, from the closing words of King John:
“And we shall shock them: naught shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.”
For eleven tumultuous years, Margaret Thatcher did shock them. But the deep corrosion of a nation is hard to reverse: England to itself rests anything but true.