London, Asharq Al-Awsat—I was a child when Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party. She was fifty. Looking at the photographs now, she looks younger than I expected—and this is not merely an effect of me growing older. It is all the fault of her clothes; they belong to a different age. If a political consultant had not famously told her to lose the hat, she would have remained in the frumpy post-war 1950s for her entire life.
It was always said that Conservative MPs found her almost sexy. This seemed highly implausible. Who could find Margaret Thatcher attractive, with her bloodless skin and her cold, blue eyes? Yet she was younger than many of her colleagues. In the 1970s, most Tory MPs had fought in the Second World War; indeed, it was difficult to be selected as a Conservative candidate without having had a ‘good war.’ Margaret was twenty when the war ended. In retrospect, she was perfectly placed. She was elected to parliament before the men of the post-fighting generation, and so she had a head-start on the hard-headed, market-orientated Tories that she would eventually lead.
In the early 1970s, her party was split in two. Half of the Conservative Party bitterly regretted losing the empire and saying goodbye to the influence and independence that came from having tentacles across Africa, India, the Middle East and Caribbean. The other half hoped to gently slip away from the colonies and negotiate a new contract with a peaceful, forward-looking Europe. Thatcher represented the old Colonialists; they voted for her in 1975 and made her party leader. Indeed, her attack on her European-friendly colleagues for being interested only in ‘managing decline’ had such a profound effect that it remains impossible to offer a Conservative vision of Europe even now, 40 years later.
I know how my left-leaning, liberal parents saw Margaret Thatcher. They saw her hat and the rest of her 1950s wardrobe, and they saw the old backbench MPs who voted for her roaring about the betrayal of empire. They assumed Margaret Thatcher was a full-blooded reactionary, a friend to anyone who refused to see that the world had moved on and Britain must move with it. The truth turned out to be very different. Thatcher came to represent a kind of brutal modernism—but how could anyone guess this, back in the 1970s, seeing this old-fashioned looking woman? More old-fashioned, in fact, than she needed to be, as though she had spent so long looking older than her years that she had turned into a parody of “Tory Womanhood.”
Did Margaret Thatcher know who she was in 1975, when she became the Conservative Party leader? Did she have any idea of the impact she would have? It is certain that she was not the kind of reactionary we thought. Far from being deranged by the loss of the empire, she barely thought about it at all. Yes, she fought for the Falklands Islands, and she was unsympathetic to the ANC and Nelson Mandela. Yet she swiftly gave up on the Rhodesian and other white colonialists. The fact is that we assumed Margaret Thatcher would be a reactionary, but the truth was she was almost too-forward looking. She wanted to remake the UK as an aggressive, swashbuckling force of nature—daring in business and in world affairs alike.
We are stuck with the aftermath of her vision.
I might have grown up in a Britain where old-fashioned companies plodded on, their roots deep in the community, making things out of big lumps of metal, powered by coal-burning power stations—but I did not. A gentler Conservative Party might have tried to make this vision of Britain work, but Margaret Thatcher’s party believed it was impossible. In consequence, the UK I grew up in was one where all these older industries went bankrupt, all of the workers first went on strike and then went on the dole, and everyone who complained was painted as an enemy of progress, an agent of decline or, worse, a Communist.
It is almost impossible to over-emphasise how divided the UK became under Margaret Thatcher. Scotland loathed her, and as the hatred grew, the Scots became more and more estranged from England, and thus from the UK. If Scotland ever votes for independence, Thatcher will have been the midwife. Much of the north of England hates her, too, having seen its industries and influence gone. Irish Republican terrorism in the 1980s was far worse than any of the current, Al-Qaeda-inspired campaigns. Thatcher’s attempts to fight terrorism were, without exception, abysmal failures. It was her successor, John Major, who found a political means to defeat the terrorists. Thatcher only ever saw problems as fights. So we fought, all of us, all of the time.
Frankly, it was exhausting.
When Margaret Thatcher was finally ousted, things got more peaceful. Yet Britain feels very much like a post-Thatcher world. Instead of deep roots, we have fast-moving connections, technology rather than industry, services rather than manufacturers. Even things we never dreamed of in the 1980s, like the Internet, somehow feel Thatcher-esque. She gets all of the credit and all of the blame for our world—which is the mark of a truly extraordinary political figure.