Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Thatcher Depreciation

“Say what you will about the politics of Margaret Thatcher,” a liberal friend of mine posted on Facebook last week, upon hearing about the death of the former British Prime minister, “but she was a strong, powerful, and intelligent woman.”

To tell the truth, I disagreed vehemently with that assessment—and so would have, from a very different perspective but ultimately for the same reason, Thatcher herself. During her career, she had little use for feminism, and, having beaten male politicians at their own game repeatedly, she would have bridled at any attempt to judge her legacy by any gender-based yardstick. Besides, what did that first clause mean? If you didn’t view her through politics, her life’s work, then how on earth should she be viewed?

In short, I’m afraid she would ask, “Why couldn’t you just write, ‘Margaret Thatcher was strong, powerful, and intelligent’?”

As it happens, I have issues with the “was strong, powerful, and intelligent” part of that sentence, too. Saying a world leader is “powerful” comes with the job description; it tells nothing useful about the important question—i.e., how is power used? Though intelligence cannot be taken for granted among today’s politicians, its possession confers neither greatness nor even effectiveness, as seen in the cases of Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. As for strength, it is not to be confused with inflexibility, anymore than love should be mixed up with obsession. Thatcher did her best to annihilate opponents, not convert them.

Something of the same measures of success used by my Facebook friend also colored the thinking of the powers that be at The New York Times. What was worse, though, was that, with far greater space and resources than my friend, it gave short shrift to a matter of grave importance for hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic: her policy on Northern Ireland.

From 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, more than 3,000 people lost their lives in these six provinces, with 2% of the population killed or wounded. The equivalent of that in the U.S. during that time would have been 500,000--nearly 10 times the number killed in the Vietnam War. 

Twelve years of this tragic history occurred during Thatcher’s time at Downing Street. She had the opportunity to advance the peace process significantly. Not only did she fail to do so; not only did she regret the one tiny step she did make, under extreme sufferance; but she also damaged hopes for negotiations.

In all of this, the Iron Lady not only had a predictable American ally in fellow conservative Ronald Reagan, but a more unlikely one in the liberal Gray Lady. In the 1980s, when one of the Times reporters, Jo Thomas, began to inquire into the “shoot-to-kill” practices in Ulster that were at the heart of the controversy surrounding investigator John Stalker, she was quickly frozen out by the complaining Thatcher government, then reassigned by her compliant bosses.

One might expect the passage of time to produce greater objectivity at the Times, but all readers found instead was a case of amnesia. In the two days immediately after her death, the paper devoted the equivalent of three of its very long pages, counting news and editorial space, to Thatcher. Out of this, only two paragraphs concerned Northern Ireland.

At her most benign, Thatcher saw Ulster as a backwater hardly worth learning about; at her worst, she regarded its beleaguered Roman Catholic minority as a group whose grievances she didn’t need to understand. The Times might have disagreed with her economic policy, but on this issue, hardly a whit.

The newspaper, particularly after the Jayson Blair scandal, has made a great fetish out of correcting the slightest spelling error, but it continues, all too often, to provide insufficient background and alternative points of view. It has flagellated itself on not questioning the official government version of events in the rush to war in Iraq, but its lack of curiosity about Northern Ireland extended for far longer. More often than not, the paper of record continues to publish columns of inches on this subject that makes for great garbage lining.

Believe me, though the Times continues to demonstrate historical amnesia about Northern Ireland, many Irish-Americans feel otherwise, including many progressives. The bar Rocky Sullivan’s in Red Hook, Brooklyn, held a party celebrating her death. A friend posted, out there in the social media, that Thatcher might find herself soon consigned to the ninth circle of hell.

I subscribe to neither view, but I know why so many feel so vehemently. Columnist Jimmy Breslin explained why, in a passage that also underscores why admiration for Thatcher’s “firmness” is so misplaced:

“She is a woman born to smell milk in the mouth of an unworthy, and she has the eyes of Captain Bligh. She is admired everywhere because when she takes a stand, she does not change it because if she changed, why, then it would mean she had changed. And this she would never do.”

American conservatives often liken Thatcher to Winston Churchill, but aside from their leadership of the Conservative Party, it is hard to see what the two had in common. Consider these differences:

* While Thatcher widened the gap between haves and have-nots, Churchill narrowed it. Allied with David Lloyd George, who had persuaded him to join the Liberal Party, Churchill, in the decade before World War I, helped ram through Parliament much of the social-welfare legislation (e.g. old-age pensions, national insurance against unemployment and sickness), that would not pass in the United States until FDR’s New Deal two decades later. 

 *Churchill was every bit the imperialist Thatcher was, but he was enough of a realist to at least sit down to negotiate with Michael Collins and his Irish colleagues the treaty that gave Ireland at least a measure of self-rule. Furthermore, despite all his disagreements with the Labour Party, Churchill was the only Conservative leader that the opposition would accept in forming a new British government after Neville Chamberlain lost the no-confidence vote in Parliament. It is impossible to conceive of a similar positive outcome involving Thatcher.

* Churchill became justly famous for his eloquence, inspiring his countrymen to stand alone for a year against Nazi Germany, until the formation of the Grand Alliance. His effectiveness in Parliamentary debate was heightened by a wit that, when it did not decimate foes, could mock himself. ("All men are worms, but I do believe I am a glowworm.") His words reminded his fellow citizens of the best of their political traditions, and of Western Civilization itself. In contrast, what Thatcher quotes will be recalled in the future? “The lady’s not for turning”; her response to Irish Taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald on his three Ulster peace proposals (“Out, out, out”); and her cavalier dismissal of any movement away from traditional British misrule ("Northern Ireland,” she helpfully explained, “is as British as Finchley”—her borough constituency). All of these quotes are small-minded and humorless, and, considered in terms of pure political effectiveness, utterly backfired. (Thatcher's inability even to consider any of FitzGerald's proposals backed her into such a corner that she was forced to accede to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.)

In January 1991, the National Review ran a picture of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on its cover with the headline, "Is the Heroic Age of Conservatism Over?" I gagged then, as I do now, at this notion. The most enduring achievement of these two leaders was not something celebrated by their movement at the time: i.e., their recognition that, as Thatcher put it, "we can do business with" the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev in easing tensions between East and West. 

Otherwise, the long-term domestic results were similar, and not readily understood at the time: policies that favored the financial sector at the expense of the industrial sector that had sustained the poor for years; resulting inequality; and radically relaxed regulatory controls that led to the global recession of several years ago that both countries are still struggling to come to terms with. 

The intersection of Thatcher’s domestic Darwinism and her neo-imperialist policy can be seen in Ulster. There, while spending on security forces increased greatly under her, expenditures in social services slowed or even reversed in some cases. The result: at a point when sectarian tensions were at their greatest in Ulster, a generation of young men on both sides experienced even greater fear and uncertainty because the jobless rate in Ulster doubled from 1979 to 1986.

One unintended consequence of the Thatcher Reaction (“revolution” is a misnomer) might be the auspices under which her funeral was conducted. The Labour Party, which suffered many painful defeats at her hands, raised the embarrassing question of how the pomp-and-circumstances services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, reportedly running anywhere from $15 million to $20 million, would be paid. At one point in the past, that might not have mattered. But, with fears of a triple-dip recession rampant, the expense was now a very live issue, and especially among members of the lowest stratum of British society.

The title of this post has a double meaning. It not only refers to the critical correction I feel necessary to apply in the face of unreflective acceptance of her own value, but also the depreciation in her historical stock that I’m sure will result, bit by bit, as historians wade through oral histories, primary documents—and, eventually, documents disgorged after the expiration of Britain’s Official Secrets Act.

Intemperate speech often bestows on their possessors the reputation of candor. It was all the more necessary for Thatcher to be so characterized, as it concealed a deep strain of hypocrisy and fraudulence. 

She claimed to be merely ratifying the wishes of the Protestant majority in Ulster to stay associated with Britain, but thought nothing of honoring the even more powerful desires of the citizens of Hong Kong to remain part of Britain rather than becoming absorbed by totalitarian China. Facing the chance of war with the world’s most populous country, unable to interpose her nation’s naval force halfway around the ground, she negotiated the handoff of one of the British Empire’s prize colonies.

By comparison, the Falkland Islands were of little strategic or financial value to Britain. Unlike with Hong Kong, though, Thatcher beat the drums of war when the Argentine government attempted to take by force this long-disputed region. The British Prime Minister only held onto this stretch of ground because it was logistically easier to mount a military operation across the Atlantic Ocean against a tinhorn junta. In other words, she made her decision to go to war not because re-taking the islands was moral, but because she could.  

We already know of one not-so-secret act: Despite her insistence that she would not negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, a group she associated with terrorism, she did indeed authorize a backchannel of communication with them. At the same time, one adviser, Sir David Goodall, now admits that Thatcher privately urged that Catholics not satisfied with the political situation in Ulster simply move south to the Republic of Ireland--a settlement policy that many down there rightly regard as harking back to the worst days of Oliver Cromwell. Another former aide, Peter Mandelson, her Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, divulged after her death that she had told him, "I’ve got one thing to say to you, my boy … you can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars."

Some have claimed that Thatcher was merely reacting against terrorism in Northern Ireland, including the deaths of close aides and even an attempt on her life that failed. But when she spoke of the Catholic minority, the only people she could seemingly conceive of, outside of terrorists, were fools. Furthermore, some of her contemporary admirers might be a bit surprised to learn that she also branded Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as late as 1987 "a typical terrorist organization."  

Being the first female Prime Minister of her country, as well as the Prime Minister who served the longest in the post during the 20th century, hardly merits the kind of send-off Thatcher received last week at St. Paul's. She was consequential, all right, but those she succeeded in marginalizing--the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, Scotland's independence activists, and miners and their families in England--had every right not to join the mindless cheering for her from both sides of the Atlantic last week.


John the Cat said...

Mike you blog means a lot to me.

Peter Quinn said...

An absolutely brilliant demolition of Thatcher and Thatcherism!!!

MikeT said...

Thanks, John and Pete. This post seems to have hit a nerve with a number of readers.