by Joe Shea
April 21, 2013
THE BIG, BIG WHY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There's a reason why celebrations broke out around Great Britain to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher. There are only a handful of people in the history of the 20th Century who have wreaked as much havoc as she.
Before the evil gets interred with her bones, and the conservative noise machine elevates her to sainthood along with former President Ronald Reagan. let us remember the real Margaret Thatcher and look at her record without mawkish tears.
As I did for President Reagan, I won't abide for the demand for respectful silence. Voltaire's aphorism - "to the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe the truth" applies to the former British Prime Minister's life and the 11 1/2 years she spent in power.
There's her biggest legacy, the dismantling of the Britain's public sector.
She famously said "there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first."
Thatcher set out to prove that statement by turning her back on Britain's century-old legacy of substantial investment in public infrastructure. The mixed economy and universal welfare state that was the crown jewel of Britain's Labour Party after World War II was gutted under Thatcher.
A disciple of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Thatcher helped speed along the deindustrialization of her nation. She privatized industry and deregulated the financial markets. She was relentless in dealing with the unions, the working class, the Left, and anyone else who stood in her path. She couldn't bust up the National Health Service, but she did end government ownership of oil, gas, coal, electricity and steel.
No doubt, Britain's economy was lousy when Thatcher took office in 1979. But there were many other countries that were going through similar troubles, thanks to inflation and the end of cheap energy. Thatcher didn't have to go "all in" on free market remedies. But that was the path she chose. She cut taxes for the wealthy and services for the poor, establishing the blueprint for today's austerity that grips Europe and threatens to take hold in the United States.
Perhaps the best measure of what she did to Britain can be encapsulated in this statistic. When Thatcher took power, 1 in 7 of Britain's children lived in poverty. A decade later, it was 1 child in 3.
Then there's her legacy outside Britain. While she does deserve credit for being among the first to recognize that Mikhail Gorbachev could reform the Soviet Union, Thatcher seemed to have never met a despot she didn't like.
She stood by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, and considered him a friend, long after the record of his murderous regime in Chile was exposed.
But Pinochet was not the only dictator she backed. Iraq's Saddam Hussein (at least before the first Gulf War) and General Suharto in Indonesia were also among Thatcher's friends. And she was friendly with the junta in Argentina until they claimed the Falkland Islands and gave her an excuse to launch a bogus little war to boost her standing in the polls.
She denounced Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as "terrorists," and backed the apartheid government in South Africa.
In northern Ireland, she and her government invented many of the policies and techniques that were co-opted by the Bush and Obama Administrations, such as extrajudicial assassination, detention without trial, military tribunals, and prison camps. It's a direct line from H-Block in Long Kesh to Guantanamo Bay.
The 1981 hunger strikes that took the lives of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republicans still burns in the memory of those in the north, as Thatcher allowed Sands, an elected member of the British parliament who won his seat from his prison cell, to starve himself to death rather than bow to the demands of the Republicans.
While she eventually oversaw the end of Britain's claim of exclusive sovereignty over Northern Ireland, the damage had been done. It can be argued that "The Troubles" lasted two decades longer than they needed to because of Thatcher.
I'd say The Guardian summed her life up best in their editorial on Thatcher's death:
While she was "an exceptionally consequential woman," she also leaves a legacy of "public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which shackle far more of the human spirit than they have ever set free," the paper said.
Like her ideological soulmate, President Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher's last years were plagued by dementia. She died in bed, a victim of a stroke at age 87.
But dictators always die in bed.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.