Writing from London, I have to be aware that the Boston Marathon bombs have dominated the news and imagination of America for the last two days. They have received great attention here too. They remind Britain all too ominously of the 7/7 bombings on the London subway in 2005. Even so, Britain’s week has really been devoted to what Ruth Dudley Edwards has called an extraordinary national debate on the achievements or otherwise of Lady Thatcher.
She thinks — and I agree with her — that Lady Thatcher has won that debate. You can read Ruth’s very personal account here. Her column is not written like an op-ed or party manifesto but as a narrative of how she, as a young woman working in London, mostly in the British civil service, and originally unsympathetic to Mrs. Thatcher, gradually became converted to her reforming zeal by the experience of living through the nightmare years of the 1970s.
My impression, after talking to many people — the British suddenly want to talk to complete strangers about Thatcher — is that Ruth’s story is quite similar to those of many not-very-political people in England who were driven into the arms of the former prime minister by the curious coincidence that events repeatedly confirmed her arguments.
That does not explain, however, why this week has sealed her victory, as I think it has.
One explanation of that was given by the splendid and moving funeral that the nation gave her. The traditional Anglican service in St. Paul’s, with the lonely flag-draped coffin under the dome, brought home to people that she was an ordinary woman, a Christian soul, who had the same disappointments and setbacks as everyone else and who in the end faced the same death with the same hope for God’s mercy. The wonderful music (mainly by English composers such as Elgar, Vaughn Williams, Holst, and Stanford) and powerful readings from an Anglican liturgy rooted in both Biblical and Shakespearean eloquence, together with a very well-judged homily by the Bishop of London, nonetheless conveyed through their poetry something of the immense patriotic vitality that the small body lying there had, one devoted to solving her country’s problems and improving the greater world too. And there is always a powerful and necessary symbolism in the sight of the great of this world kneeling in prayer and asking God for mercy for one of their own number even if, unlike Lady Thatcher, they don’t believe a word of it.
And maybe for a moment in St. Paul’s they did believe something. For the funeral undoubtedly exercised an influence on those outside. At Churchill’s funeral the crowds along the route had remained utterly silent and still; men’s removing their hats when the cortege passed was the only visible crowd reaction, and there was no audible one. Last week the crowds along the route, no longer knowing the etiquette of these occasions but wanting to express respect, kept up a steady applause as the gun carriage bearing the coffin went by them.
The applause began when the cortege approached; it faded away when the cortege passed from view; and it grew suddenly thunderous when the occasional group of protesters shouted insults. It was plain that a different sentiment — one both more respectful and more affectionate — towards Margaret Thatcher was more widespread at the end of the week than at its start. She had become an undeniably major figure in the long history of England — alongside Pitt, Gladstone, Churchill — and people adjusted their sense of her accordingly.
Another factor in her victory was the sheer nastiness and bile of her radical critics — something that actually ended by making their more moderate fellows reconsider and at least balance criticism with a kind of praise. The London Review of Books, for instance, had two pages devoted to its own relationship with the former prime minister. That relationship over the years was almost undilutedly hostile, and this fact was fully reflected in the page devoted to vitriolic excerpts from past critiques of her governing style and policies: “will, whim, pique”; “madonna of bother”; “neither nice nor interesting.” But Karl Miller, after summarizing this record in the present, felt compelled to qualify his long hostility with a reluctant admiration (behind a firewall, I’m afraid):
She came to the point and did what she said, unlike most leaders, and she was courageous. Her behaviour after the Brighton bombing was politics as well as guts. But it was both . . . Watching the tributes, I found myself liking her a shade more than I wanted to–sheepishly liking her, as she would no doubt have put it. In full flight she was a wonderful aerodynamic specimen . . .
The third factor was the debate itself. In the last few years, despite the occasional book or article taking her side, the weight of political and media opinion, and therefore of Public Opinion (which is to be distinguished from what most people actually think), has been against her. A lazy contempt for her and her administration had become the prevailing view. But the rules of debate — above all, that you need two sides to have one — has meant that the case for her has had to be put in almost every possible forum.
That alone would have been to her advantage. In addition, however, since modern debates are conducted with documentary videos as well as with paper speeches, the British public has been reminded not only of the Thatcher years but also of the nightmare years leading up to them: the strikes. the rubbish piling up in Leicester Square, the flying pickets, the arrival of the IMF bailiffs, etc. People who had voted for her three times suddenly remembered why; those who had been born since looked with wonder at the uninhabitable foreign country from which their parents had escaped.
My own take on those turbulent years before and during Thatcher can be found in this interview with Peter Robinson for the Wall Street Journal and the Hoover Institution. I’m for her, of course; more to the point, I feel after this amazing week that Ruth and I are on the winning side.