Probably the most contradictory thing that you can see on TV is a citizen of a democratic country complaining that they are living in a fascist dictatorship. If that citizen were living in a fascist dictatorship, he or she probably would not be able to complain about the government in a TV broadcast, as it would be edited out of the final show, or if it was said live, he or she would probably be subject to some kind of recrimination after the event. Fascism is a political ideology that sees the state as one body moving in unison towards one goal: dissent has to be removed as diseased cells are removed from the body by white blood cells, which in this analogy would be the police. The declaration is therefore nonsense, and has a similar feel to the internet rule of Godwins Law; the first person to compare their opponent to Hitler or the Nazis automatically loses the argument. Yet we see this being repeated whenever a group of people are annoyed with their government, with the accusation of fascism being a favourite of the anti-Iraq war movement a decade ago. I was reminded of this contradiction this week in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death, as footage from the 1980’s was rolled out of out-of-work miners from the North of England labelling Maggie as just that, a fascist dictator. Well, she wasn’t. She faced a General Election three times as leader of the Conservative Party and her party won all three with a final tally of at least 42% of the vote, and a turnout of at least 72% in each. That isn’t fascism, that is a mandate. In the end she was finally ousted by her own party in a coup which could actually have been the most fascistic event of her reign.
Thatcher made a lot of enemies in Britain, and indeed ruined a lot of lives through the unemployment caused by her industrial restructuring of the British economy. Industrial towns lost their livelihoods, and communities were allowed to break down, which is still a problem today in much of the country. The bitterness and vitriol we saw bubble to the surface during the week condemning her is understandable when you think that she helped destroy the ability of countless families to provide an adequate standard of living for themselves, and then instilled a culture in the British psyche condemning those who relied on the State for social welfare assistance, many of whom she had helped unemploy. In Ireland, she is hated for her tough stance towards the IRA, however I think that in hindsight people in Ireland already feel a bit foolish about this one. She didn’t care about the British people, she cared about the average Briton. Thatcher was a Big Picture politician, and cared little for individual cases as long as the average statistics went up. Economic growth, average income, and Britain’s place in the diplomatic community all increased during Thatcher’s reign, yet she left office universally hated. Two decades later this hatred is unabated, with people organising street parties on the evening of her death and petitions online to deprive her of a state funeral (which she had vetoed anyway as she knew it would only lead to protests).
One thing you can’t argue when discussing Margaret Thatcher is that she had a vision, and stuck to it, without ever caring what the public thought of her. Britain had lost its Empire and was searching for its new place in the world, was mired in industrial strikes and was increasingly isolated in Europe by the late 1970s as a result of years of exclusion from the burgeoning European Economic Community. Thatcher wanted to change all of this, and she did. She took on Europe, waged war on industrial action and solidified Britain’s place as bosom buddy of the United States through her supply-side seduction of Ronald Reagan. We may disagree with her vision, yet it worked. Britain would not be in the top 10 economies in the world today without Margaret Thatcher. This statement is never really argued, as the cost of Thatcher’s policies to marginal Britons (not average Britons, whom she cared about) was far too high, and the end did not justify the means.
Thatcher changed a country dramatically in the space of little over a decade, and is probably the last leader of a democracy that will ever leave such a legacy. Thatcher didn’t care about popularity, yet this is all modern leaders fret over. Thatcher was ousted in 1990, and by the mid 90’s computer technology had permeated political consultancies, leading to politicians becoming increasingly dependant on opinion polls and approval ratings. Modern leaders don’t have a vision, they just try and get elected based on targeting the issues or demographic that their analysts tell them will get them enough votes to win. There is no such thing as an election platform anymore, it is more of an election portfolio of ideas and soundbites recommended by consultants based on hard data. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were the godfathers of this class of politician, and I believe history will be a lot harder to these two than it will to Margaret Thatcher. George W. Bush had his target audience too, and it gave him two terms in office. David Cameron had the great asset of being Leader of the Opposition of the Party that ruined the British Economy. His consultants told him where to lean and what to say, and frustrated voters did the rest. There are no visions there, there is simple opportunism, based again on advice gleaned from opinion polls, which in turn ask questions in very limited, stifling terms.
There is an old quotation often attributed to Henry Ford about how if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. This is not saying that people are stupid, but that they can only answer the question that is put to them, nothing else. Yet it is these answers that are collected and collated and used to inform the policies of political parties in democracies all around the world. Obama came to power based on a message of change, thought up by a PR company and marketed like a Hollywood movie, yet there was little he could do but not be George W. Bush. He will not change America, all he can do is try and make it a better place than it was before. Margaret Thatcher had a vision, and principles, and saw them through. She lived in a time when politicians could ignore the fickle whim of the public, and pushed through reforms that ensured the continuing wellbeing of a once-great nation. She will never be forgiven for how she did it, or who she was. She was no feminist icon, but a great female leader. If any women out there are depressed that she was the first great female leader, they shouldn’t worry. The first male leaders in history weren’t very sympathetic either.