But in the case of Margaret Thatcher, I doubt whether history will even ascribe her that kind of greatness. Frankly, when my conservative friends speak of Margaret Thatcher, I wonder whether we are speaking of the same person. She has entered history, it would seem, with a forged prospectus, and future historians will wonder at the power of image-making and of the will to be deceived. Let me get through the various aspects of her public image and explain why I can't take a single one of them seriously.
NOT A SELF-MADE WOMAN
Much has been made of her being a "grocer's daughter", but the grocer in question was in fact the owner of a large business and a mayor of Grantham, rich enough to send her to Oxford when that was no joke. Socially, that placed her above two of her immediate predecessors, the carpenter's son Edward Heath, and the trades unionist with no degree, James Callaghan, and on a level with the third, Harold Wilson, like her the son of a local politician. When the war came, she shifted her studies from Law - her real passion - to Chemistry; coincidentally, Law students were subject to conscription, and Chemistry students were not. (EDIT: here I deleted a sentence which contained claims that seem to be flatly wrong. My mistake.) As a young woman, she was blonde and beautiful, and, unlike her lookalike Marilyn in the famous movie, she actually did marry a millionaire - an oil multi-millionaire - which made her future secure and her political ascent a matter of personal choice rather than a necessary career. This does not deny her famous ability for hard work, but places it in proper context. She never had to work to live.
NOT AN ANTI-COMMUNIST
Communism fell because of its own internal weakness (long before Reagan's presidency, Russia was having to buy Canadian grain and the designs of outdated Fiat long out of production), and the ruling Western leaders happily took the credit. But while Ronald Reagan's arms race can plausibly claim to have sped up the result, and Reagan's distaste for "the evil empire" was a dominant feature of his life, Margaret Thatcher only talked a good game. When it came to real victims of real Communism, she was as heartless as an East German border guard. At the time when the Boat People were THE humanitarian issue of the day, and even the international left were beginning to awaken to the horror of events in Vietnam and Cambodia, she would not let one starving Vietnamese into Great Britain, and to the people who pleaded for them within her own cabinet, she gave the classical racist's answer: "Ask them why they don't take them in their own houses." Then when the Wall came down, she showed herself openly hostile to the reunification of Germany. It has since been said that this was because of her fears of an overmighty Germany in Europe, but that is nonsense. German dominance in Europe was already an accomplished fact; the arrival of seventeen million Ossis did not significantly alter that; and the East, except for Saxony, had at any rate always been the potato-fed, backward Mezzogiorno and Deep South of Germany. And we should remember that the Gorbachev of whom she said that he "is a man we can do business with" was an unrepentant, unapologetic Communist bent not on reversing, but on reforming and reinforcing the Party.
NOT A SOCIAL CONSERVATIVE
I doubt Margaret Thatcher would have opposed "gay marriage", and if she did, it would have been out of habit and not of reasoning, and she would probably have ended up being reasoned into supporting it. Her positions on social values were otherwise hardly distinct from President Obama's. She never saw an abortion she did not like; she did nothing to slow down the furious rate of divorce; she abolished grammar schools and polytechnics, introduced the GCSE, and did nothing to reinforce teachers' authority or the devastating drift towards "child-centred" education. She brought in the Public Order Act of 1986, which embodied the principle of hate speech and. criminalized “us[ing] threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or ... display[ing] any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” She cut, but did not reform, the dole; in fact, since her policies saw millions committed to long-term unemployment, she could not afford to tamper with it too much (and neither have any of her successors been able to since). In my view, however, nothing did so much damage as her making common cause with the bandit and pornographer Rupert Murdoch, whose sleazy, debasing and vicious "newspapers" became the staple reading of tens of millions. Anyone who, in my view, contemplates the rise of Britain's unlovely lad/ladette culture without reflecting that these lads and ladettes had been exposed to Murdoch's pornography since earliest childhood, is simply trying to avoid facts; and the intimate relationship between Thatcherism and Murdoch is, in spite of what my Tory friends want to believe, simply a fact.
NOT A DEMOCRAT
She drained local authorities of prestige and authority (read Simon Jenkins' THE NATIONALIZATION OF BRITAIN), and consistently worked to leave only one power in the State. The most inglorious and damaging of this long chain of petty usurpations is the abolition of the Greater London County Council, a piece of utter administrative and organizational folly that gives the lie to any notion of her being a prudent or adroit administrator, and that left one of Europe's largest cities (and Britain's capital, not to mention her showpiece to the world) under the administration of 33 squabbling local councils under the co-ordination of a few unelected and faceless bureaucrats appointed by her. And why did she do that? Because the London Council, led by a rather extreme Labour faction, taunted her by such stunts as posting the daily sum of unemployed on the Council buildings, facing the Houses of Parliament, where she could see them. They could not do anything against her, but she abolished them because she did not like what they were saying. Democracy is something else.
NOT A SOUND-MONEY WOMAN
Thatcher threw out the best of Keynesianism, but kept the worst. It all began with the frenzy of privatization, where people were effectively given money for nothing under the guise of shareholdings into privatized companies and banks. That was the beginning of the orgy of debt that has lasted ever since, backed by inflated property equity. To be fair, Thatcher only started this chain of horrors; it took, for instance, the supposed Labour man of the people John Prescott to conceive of increasing house prices by destroying tens of thousands of perfectly viable homes in unfashionable areas.
NOT A NATIONALIST
Whatever his feelings about trades unions or the working classes, no sincere nationalist would have allowed the destruction and outsourcing of enormous parts of British manufacturing, including strategic ones such as shipping. Compare and contrast with the behaviour of French governments of both sides during this period: who is it who still has a car industry, shipyards, and so on? Indeed, even the armed forces that gave her her signature success in the Falklands were, by the end of her period, suspect of no longer having the strength for another such campaign.
NOT A STRONG LEADER, AND NOT PROOF AGAINST TURNING
Many of us who did not know the background felt that she was at her best after the Brighton bomb outrage of 1984, when, woken out of a sound sleep by the explosion that killed many of her friends and colleagues, she was seen, one or two hours later, not one hair out of place, telling the journalists assembled in the cold and fearful night: "Of course the conference goes on". She looked the very image of defiance against terror, and I think even those who, like me, hated her guts, felt like clapping.
Yet within a year she had agreed and signed the Anglo-Irish agreement.
As the furious Ulster Protestants pointed out at the time, this was a deal that gave the Republic of Ireland what they had claimed, and Britain refused, since 1922: a legitimate part and a lawful role in the affairs of the North. It was ineffective, because a government-level agreement could not stop the Provisional IRA, who were, whatever individual contacts there might be, nearly as much at war against Dublin as against London; however, it is was an absolutely central precedent in what happened later. The North Irish peace agreements are generally credited to her successors, Major and Blair, but the whole secret negotiation that led to them was justified by the existence of the Anglo-Irish agreement.
Margaret Thatcher had form in this area. Back in the seventies, her supporters were among the few who would back Ian Smith's minority government in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe; but it was the Thatcher government who persuaded the Rhodesian whites to effectively surrender, to the vast surprise of a watching world. And while nobody could object to the principle of majority rule, the results of that deal have otherwise been mixed at best, and suggest that not enough trouble had been taken to think what should be done to prevent tyranny in the future of Zimbabwe. But, above all, it was Margaret Thatcher who signed the Treaty of Maastricht.
[WRONG. What she signed was the Single European Act, but from the viewpoint of her fanatical Europe-haters it came to the same thing.]
...I would imagine that a Nigel Farage or an Ian Duncan-Smith would not even have considered signing it, and would have let it be known. Margaret Thatcher signed it; and - which is what really can't be rationally explained - went on to act as though she had not, interjecting "NO" in every European political debate, without reflection and indeed without much political action. That is ultimately why Sir Geoffrey Howe and her other ministers decided they had had enough. They may not have been overfond of Europe and Europeans, but they did not see why they should go on defending a policy that went against what the Prime Minister herself had signed, and seemed no better than the essence of capricious futility.