There is a unique kind of political leader that emerges from time to time in a particular society or country, most often sparking sizable controversy or dispute. Although some of their most notable policies may be hated or unpopular, they nevertheless insist on following their own course and they have the ability and willingness to implement it. Their mark remains for decades after they leave power, and their policies eventually become accepted or embraced in one form or another by their successors, even if they are at odds ideologically or politically.
One of these leaders was former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady.” She was the longest-serving Conservative Party prime minister to date, being elected to three consecutive terms in office. In the Arab world, there was the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, whose reign was short-lived even though his policies still spark debate even today, especially with regards to peace with Israel and economic openness.
The news of Thatcher’s death at the age of 87 was announced on Monday. She was one of the most influential post-war British politicians, and she changed the face of society, especially on the economic front. Her policies were a source of contention even within the Conservative Party, where she was an active member since her youth. To this day she remains a controversial figure in British society; some admire her deeply, others feel strong hatred. Beyond that, there is almost a complete consensus or unanimity with regards to her lofty political stature, and an implicit recognition that her unpopular policies were in fact necessary and paid off years later. She was like a doctor who ignored her patient’s protestations and insisted on administering the best medicine.
Thatcher herself acknowledged that some of her policies were damaging. Among the many nicknames she was given was the ‘Milk Snatcher.’ This was a cynical reference to her decision, when serving as education minister in the Edward Heath government of the 1970s, to stop the distribution of free milk for schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 11, prompting strong campaigns against her from the press and the Labour Party. She wrote later: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.” But after she became prime minister in 1979, her government was responsible for many educational reforms, regulations and monitoring initiatives, almost all of which were adopted by successive governments after that, including those led by Labour.
Some moments in a country’s history need a leader of a certain type, one that can change the course of events. Thatcher came to power in 1979 during the so-called Winter of Discontent, with Britain engulfed in turmoil, unrest and widespread strike action, prompting the Labour prime minister at the time, James Callaghan, to consider declaring a state of emergency.
Thatcher adopted unpopular policies and created many enemies. She weakened the powerful labor unions, adopted a bold privatization program, reduced the role of the government, and removed obstacles hindering the liberalization of the market, all within the context of her belief in the free market. She is partly to blame for the collapse of some of the traditional industries for which Britain was once known, such as the steel industry, and for transforming the British economy into a service economy. Moreover, during her reign the unemployment rate at one point rose above 3 million, a record figure at the time. Her policies remain controversial to this day, including her initial failed attempts to reduce the high inflation rate by limiting the money supply. Yet decades after her leaving power, there is still no clear answer about what would have happened if things were different.
The expression “Thatcherite politics” remains unpopular in Britain to this day, especially when people remember the protests about the community charge, also known as the poll tax, and the confrontations with coal miners. However, some elements of Thatcher’s policies are what transformed the Brits from renters to property owners, after complications were removed to enable banks and mortgage institutions to finance ordinary people’s mortgages. No one is talking today about the expansion of government or of a return to state-owned institutions; on the contrary, we have seen successive Labour governments, ideologically opposed to Thatcher’s approach, continuing the privatization programs. Some go on to argue that the policies adopted by Thatcher are the ones that made the British economy more competitive and better able to absorb the new technological industries, thus preserving Britain’s position among the largest industrialized economies in the world.
If we are looking for a similar example of this type of politician in the Arab world, it is Anwar Sadat. He had the audacity and ability to adopt policies that were controversial and unpopular even among his own aides. He signed a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, ending the decades of attrition and sporadic warfare. At the same time, he saw that the ailing economy controlled by the state was unsustainable.
Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel and his policy of economic openness remain controversial and unpopular, but there is almost a general consensus, even among his political opponents, that these policies are now irreversible, and that their positives outweigh the negatives.