Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Myth of Margaret Thatcher

Conservatives must come to grips with the noble failure of the Iron Lady.

“The Iron Lady,” the cruel motion picture about Margaret Thatcher, makes much of her decline into bemused old age. It arouses sympathy for her among the undecided, and passionate sympathy among those who already revere her. No wonder. I cannot think of any other living person who could have been treated in this fashion. In a way it is a compliment to her that, even in the lonely, desolate weakness of her final years, her enemies—the unintelligent, intolerant left—continue to hate her.

With such people attacking her, it is hard not to rally to her side. But what about those of us who have an uncomfortable and growing suspicion that she was not as good as she is made out to have been? I am one of them. I still cannot resist the feeling that her reputation is not just inflated but damaging to the conservative cause.

I last saw her some years ago at a London publisher’s party, terribly diminished, surrounded by fawning persons who did not seem to see that she was unhappy, lonely, and puzzled. I felt almost ashamed to be there.

For I had been a minor witness of her great days, as we then thought they were. I was sometimes among the traveling press crouched in the back of her majestic but obsolete Royal Air Force plane as she zipped frugally across the world, to be admired and to tell other people what to do.

It was not intimate contact, but we saw more of her than most people ever could. Sometimes we would be summoned to her cabin for interminable briefings which never yielded anything worth writing—for to us she was just the same in private as she was in public. What journalists want from close contact is indiscretion and mischief. She, being a real leader, who sought power to do what she thought was good, was simply not interested in that. She was not really a politician, but a real human being who had entered politics to do what she wanted.

Once, wrongly thinking she had finished a foreign-policy harangue, I rose awkwardly to my feet to leave the presence, and she gave me such a stare that my cheap suit almost caught fire. I think she gave us another half-hour of her opinions on Korea just to punish me.

I did not pause in those days to question the great myths by which she was surrounded. She possessed that unmistakable magic of authority and majesty that settles on some people and bypasses thought. The fact that she was a woman, and a very feminine woman, made that magic even more potent. You might admire her, as I mostly did, or hate her as the embodiment of all that was evil, as many British people also did. But you would never have missed the chance to be close by in the years of her greatness. Power crackled and flickered around her presence.

Much later it came to me that I, and plenty of other people, had been bewitched. I lived abroad, in Moscow and then in Washington D.C., and saw my country as others saw it. Quite often I found that foreigners had a completely misplaced admiration for Britain, which—to their puzzlement—made me sad. I knew the melancholy truth.

They thought we were still polite. They thought our schools were still good. They thought we were law-abiding and hard-working and patriotic. Educated Russians were particularly deluded about this. They longed for there to be a country completely unlike the USSR. The poor longed to be American. The intellectuals longed to be English.

And with this went an absurd, uncritical worship of Margaret Thatcher, which I came to call Thatcherolatry. The more of it I came across, the more I questioned my own more cautious enthusiasms. It was very much alive in the U.S. too, as I found one evening at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., when Lady Thatcher, by then out of office for nearly five years, performed to a paying audience. There was a tootling rendition of “God Save the Queen,” an embarrassingly sycophantic introduction, and a wretched fake-Churchillian speech about nothing very much. Then there was exaggerated applause, of the sort you get when people do not understand but want to worship. For me, it wouldn’t have been much worse if she had taken the stage alongside Bozo the Clown, or appeared in Union Jack tights on a high wire, singing “There’ll Always be an England.” But it was plain that the customers liked it.

Their adulation meant precisely nothing. Around that time, Britain was being thoroughly humiliated by the Clinton White House. I came to think that almost anything would have done for this purpose, but the chosen field of action was Ireland. President Clinton had decided to pay off some heavy debts to Irish Americans by boosting Gerry Adams and the IRA, a policy that would soon afterwards lead to a complete British surrender to Irish terrorism.

Now, if the United Kingdom was as important an ally and friend as it was supposed to be, this simply would not have happened. The repeated slighting and snubbing of the British Embassy in Washington, and the brusque and dismissive treatment of Mrs. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, were enormously educational to this Englishman, previously soothed and deceived by the supposed closeness of the Thatcher-Reagan relationship.

If the famous moment where Maggie and Ronnie danced together at a British Embassy ball had been a fake, what if we had been fooled about more than this? History can be a good guide to the present. But it works the other way too. I began to look again at the supposedly heroic era of the Iron Lady.

Her mighty triumph in the recapture of the Falkland Islands, which had thrilled me at the time, was the greatest disappointment. It was her government that had given Argentina the impression we no longer cared much for these remote territories. It was her government that—if it had lasted a couple of years longer—would have sold or scrapped several of the warships we used to recapture them.

She did not, as her left-wing detractors insinuate, go to war for popularity’s sake. She went to war to save her own bacon. To have given in, or to have been defeated in the war to recover the islands, would have led to her being blamed for the whole episode. Only victory, won for her by the Royal Navy she had been trying to cut to ribbons a few weeks before, would bury her own guilt in the matter. A very telling photograph shows her leaving Downing Street to face Parliament just after the Argentine seizure of the Falklands. She is bowed and tense with worry, and looks far older than she would six months later, when the war was won.

Once you have torn off this particular veil, the others fall away quite easily. Her economic achievements look thin in an age where it is generally recognized that manufacturing industry is still important after all. She closed a lot of subsidized coal mines, steelworks, shipyards, and car factories. But at least they provided work for male heads of families.

Britain today still has a vast state-employment sector, but it consists of hospitals, local government, and education establishments. There are legions of homophobia monitors and contraceptive outreach workers—not wholly frivolous examples of real posts, often with large salaries, sustained by public money. Just beneath that is a gigantic welfare state that absorbs the entire annual product of the national income tax. Currently the country is convulsed in debate as to whether it is right or just to set an upper limit on welfare payments of roughly $40,000 a year per household, the equivalent of rather more than $50,000 a year in taxable earned income.

Meanwhile in the areas where the coalminers and steelworkers once toiled, gaunt young men who have never worked and never will work smoke marijuana or inject heroin untroubled by an emasculated police force, and their sisters have babies outside wedlock, adding to the enormous number of fatherless families dependent on state handouts for their narrow lives.

British state education, based on the principle that social equality is much more important than knowledge, annually turns out tens of thousands of some of the most ignorant and unemployable teenagers in the industrialized world. Uncounted numbers of Poles, Romanians, and citizens of the Baltic Republics are granted free access to Britain thanks to the European Union’s merging of all its nationalities. They do the low-paid essential jobs that British teenagers spurn—or the jobs which British employers prefer to give to foreign workers, and not just because they are cheaper. In small country towns in agricultural areas, Latvian Polish shops and cafes flourish, and Russian is spoken commonly in the streets.

It is strange to think that, having supposedly won the Cold War, we have so spectacularly lost control of our borders to a foreign power and can no longer even decide who is allowed to live on our national territory. What sort of victory was this, if it was one?

Political correctness is written into national law, in the form of an Equalities Act that mandates its provisions throughout the public sector, and to anyone who has any contracts with that public sector—which in practice means almost everyone. One of its principal “equalities” is an insistence that Christianity shall have no more status than any other religious faith. In practice, it often has a lesser status, as a prevailing multiculturalism generally makes the authorities afraid of upsetting Muslims.

Labor unions, which Mrs. Thatcher is supposed to have defeated, have lost their old function because of the rigorous, job-destroying employment rules enforced by the courts through the European Union. Yet they still flourish as powerful lobbies for higher state spending.

Perhaps above all, the hideous cultural and moral revolution of the 1960s goes completely unchallenged. Civility, beauty, tradition, the small and the particular are all still despised and trampled on. Patriotism is still regarded as embarrassing, and akin to National Socialism. Marriage, the family, and private life continue to fade away, blasted by the chilly interference of the state and the roar of commerce. The left like to blame our general coarsening entirely on what they imagine was Mrs. Thatcher’s espousal of greed, in which they are probably wrong. She is herself a proper patriot who loves England and is intensely proud of it. And she formed her far-from-greedy character in a small town amid the darkness of the wartime blackout and the privations of rationing.

But what is certainly true is that in all her years she did little or nothing to reverse the demoralization brought about in the 1960s, when she had the power to try. And she did not grasp, until her final months in office, the enormous scale of the threat to British national independence from the European Union.

I shall never cease to admire her courage and determination. She overcame the stupid snobbery of the English upper classes, as well as simply ignoring the supposed disadvantages of her sex. Her whole life story is like one of the inspirational tales in the old Children’s Encyclopaedia that I used to read by firelight on winter evenings long ago—“The Shopkeeper’s Daughter who Rose by her own Determination to Lead a Nation.”

But at the end of it, she was a great and noble failure, who forgot or ignored half of what she really needed to do, and so lived to see almost all her successes negated. And until conservatives in Britain and America are ready to recognize that, they too will fail, over and over again.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday and author of The Rage Against God.