Margaret Thatcher did something I never thought possible.

She made my Mum swear.

I was brought up in an English village household where “damn!” and “blast!” were banned epithets. In the 1960s, when actor Warren Mitchell used the B-word on TV’s Till Death Us Do Part, a forerunner of All In The Family, civilization ended.

So when Thatcher, approaching 11 years as prime minister, revamped the property tax system to benefit her landowning cronies, the outcry was loud. Mum’s vocabulary broadened in a way no one could have predicted. Instead of the rich paying more than the poor, Thatcher’s “Community Charge” equalled the playing field so everyone paid the same taxes on their home.

There was rioting in the streets. Literally, riots. And not just by opportunist anarchists who give civil disobedience a bad name.

It was uncannily similar to the Peasants’ Revolt against the poll tax in 1381.

“That bloody woman!” moaned my Mum, an unlikely revolutionary, coincidentally echoing the phrase of the statesman Thatcher had unseated to become Conservative Party leader.

•••

Thatcher was an English grocery store owner’s daughter who studied chemistry at Oxford University, then qualified as a barrister. She lost her first political battle, was elected in 1959 and became a fixture in Parliament for the decades that followed.

The instablity of Britain in the 1970s, my teenage years, saw the nation lurch back and forth from the Conservatives to the Labour Party (Socialists) in a self-destructive melee while public-sector unions held more power than Parliament.

It was clear that strong medicine was needed.

Maggie was just that. Her 1979 election-winning slogan, “Labour isn’t working,” accompanied by a photo of a glum never-ending unemployment line, was brilliantly effective. Around that time, unemployment was about 3 million. That’s 1 in 8 of the workforce.

•••

Now Thatcher is gone, tributes have poured in. Many Britons, though, are having parties to celebrate her death. One concise Tweet, reprinted on a pop website, read simply, “Ding, dong.”

Opponents believe she showed no regard for the arts or environment, cutting subsidies to the film industry, and doing little to protect England’s beloved countryside from uncaring developers. She privatized state-owned monopoly industries. She further divided the country into the haves and the have-nots. It has never recovered. I have no hope that it will, in part because of the pervasive “mother-knows-best” attitude.

Some say Thatcher’s extremism was necessary to cure an entitlement society whose postwar promise of a government safety net – “from the cradle to the grave” – was out of control. There were victories that many celebrate. She did what predecessors Edward Heath and Harold Wilson failed to do: Stop powerful unions from holding the nation to ransom whenever their pay and benefits were renegotiated.

She extolled the American virtue of private home ownership by supporting a program where tenants could buy their publicly owned housing. At least one family member’s life was changed for the better by this.

Thatcher’s first speech in Parliament urged more openness in local government. Her early years showed support for decriminalizing homosexuality. But she also supported capital punishment (abolished in Britain in 1965) and birching, the Dickensian state-sponsored corporal punishment beloved by the far right.

She earned the nickname “Thatcher - Milk Snatcher” while serving as Education Secretary by abolishing free milk for grade-school kids. Afterward, she admitted the political cost outweighed the financial savings. In her defense, it emerged years later that she had spoken against the policy during a Cabinet meeting.

•••

Her pally relationship with the United States reinforced the lie of the two countries’ “special relationship.” She and Ronald Reagan shared the private-sector-works-best, cope-for-yourself philosophy that eradicated some of America’s safety nets for our most vulnerable residents during the 1980s.

But this belief that the two nations have common interests  – and equal voices – is a myth. The commonality is in a shared language, and only just. In practice, it allows the U.S. to keep conveniently located Air Force bases – from which it can bomb Libya, for example – and its spy agencies may share information with London when it suits them. One of Thatcher’s early acts as P.M. was to phase out the British Navy’s Polaris submarine fleet in favor of relying on U.S. Trident nuclear subs, a decision that left Britain protected but with little direct control over its Cold War destiny.

•••

Britain is used to strong women: warrior queen Boadicea, Elizabeth I and Victoria, Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale. Thatcher was famously quoted in 1973 as saying Britain wouldn’t elect a woman prime minister in her lifetime. Six years later, she moved into 10 Downing St.

As a wartime leader in 1982, she showed Churchillian backbone when Argentina tried to take the nearby Falkland Islands. But history shows it was the unpopularity of the tax policy change – and the Machievellian nature of her slimy political rivals – that brought the Iron Lady down.

She delighted in that moniker, first used by a Soviet military newspaper, and the title of the Meryl Streep movie that controversially portrayed Thatcher with dementia. The opening scene shows her buying a bottle of milk, well-chosen irony for British viewers.

When I was talking about the movie some months ago, a grade-school classmate offered what could be a consensus of Thatcher’s detractors.

“I think she robbed this country of a lot of its Englishness,” he said. “It became more Americanised – more vulgar and venal and violent and capitalist and confrontational and stupid.”

He noted that the Thatcher years prompted an unprecedented period of creativity in journalists, comedians and others. On the day after her death, the website for New Musical Express, a British-based modern music newspaper, highlighted scores of pop and punk songs inspired by Thatcher, including one called “Margaret on the Guillotine.”

My pal summed up his view of Maggie: “She was someone to unite against in loathing - but also to inspire (people) to fight for the things they believed in and cherished.”

— P.W.

Patrick Webb is managing editor of The Daily Astorian. He covered the 1979 general election for the Evening Post newspaper in Bristol. He left his native England one year and one week after Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister.

   

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