Following the betrayal and defenestration of Margaret Thatcher by her colleagues in November 1990, the Daily Telegraph offered for sale a commemorative coffee mug adorned with a picture of the lady. I immediately placed an order, and that commemorative mug has held pride of place in our family glassware cabinet ever since.
Having learned as much, you will not be surprised to know that I mourn the passing of Lady Thatcher (as she later became). Obliged for the first time in many years to take out and examine my feelings about her, however, I find they are considerably mixed, like one’s feelings towards a parent. Perhaps it is a testimony to Lady Thatcher’s stature that she should have penetrated so deep into a temperament like mine, which is to say one fundamentally skeptical and not much interested in politics.
Mrs. Thatcher came to power in May 1979 just as I had concluded my wanderjahre and returned to Britain. Four of those jahre had been spent in the U.S.A., the rest in the Far East, mainly Hong Kong. By the standards of the Britain in which I had grown up, the U.S.A. was, even in the 1970s -- even after two years of the Jimmy Carter presidency -- an arena of unbridled capitalism. Hong Kong was more striking still. In the matter of economic freedom, it made the U.S.A. look sluggish. I had, in short, been getting an education in late-Cold War politics and economics.
I had in fact recently returned from a three-month stay in Hong Kong when the 1979 election took place. My passport stamps tell me that I had left London on January 24. It was freezing cold weather, and there was some sort of strike by the airport employees preventing the runways from being de-iced so that we could take off. We sat in the plane grumbling for an hour or two while things were sorted out. When we finally took off all the passengers applauded and cheered; not so much because we were on our way at last (I remember thinking) as from happiness at having escaped from a nation far down the dark slope of decline.
And there I was, back in the wretched place in May, in the living-room of some left-liberal friends, watching the election returns. My friends were despondent, but I found the result quite cheering. Mrs. Thatcher seemed forthright and vigorous. Patriotic, too: she had earned obloquy from the ethnomasochist Left some months before by warning of the British national character being “swamped” by mass Third World immigration. Most encouraging of all, she seemed to understand the things about economic freedom and state power that I had just recently learned during my wanderings.
The lady exceeded my expectations on all points. The heroes of Greek epic poetry all enjoyed an aristeia, a moment of supreme glory. Mrs. Thatcher had at least two such in her first six years as prime minister: the Falklands War of 1982, and the coal miners’ strike of 1984-5. She handled both very masterfully, fortifying my belief that here at last, after decades of sycophants and cretins, was a British leader willing to defend her country and in possession of sensible views on economics. I loved her for that, and went on loving her for it.
National leadership, however, merely surfs on the mighty waves of historical circumstance. The great issue of our time in the Western world is the relentlessly increasing economic irrelevance of the left-hand side of the Bell Curve. Mrs. Thatcher’s defeat of the frankly communist National Union of Mineworkers was a triumph for economic sense, but left mining towns and villages without work. Most of them remain in that condition today. As the grandchild of two coal miners from just such places, I know what has been lost.
As the horny-handed sons of toil faded away from economic relevance, Gucci-loafered young securities traders with yellow suspenders came into their own. Britain’s economy shifted from digging stuff out of the ground and making and growing things to negotiating prices in a secondary market of ever more complex types of IOU. We patriotic conservatives consoled ourselves at the time by saying that at least it was better that employment should shift thus, from public-sector to private-sector employment (coal was a nationalized industry), than from private to public, as had occurred during the immediate postwar trend. Probably it was: but the shift took place at a level above the individual. Middle-aged coal miners did not get jobs on trading desks; nor, in most cases, any jobs at all. Meanwhile, public-sector employment crept upwards anyway, as it has everywhere in the West.
Thatcher’s changes were necessary, but they weren’t pretty. Necessary changes are rarely pretty. Politicians, however, must pick their fights and do what they can, in hopes that future generations will somehow sort out the new problems that always, inevitably, arise as old ones are solved. Things become their opposites; the chess game never ends.
Perhaps historians of the future will regard Mrs. Thatcher and her domestic enemies as Sellar and Yeatman taught generations of English schoolchildren to regard the parties in their nation’s Civil War: the King’s men as Wrong but Wromantic, Cromwell’s parliamentarians as Right but Repulsive. I shall leave that to their judgment. I am of my time, as she was. To me, Margaret Thatcher was never repulsive, and never can be. I loved the woman, and shall revere her memory. May she rest in peace at last.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons