She was praised as much as she was vilified; her name came to represent political honesty and resolve as much as it evoked rage and frustration.
Since her death was announced early this week, all the sobriquets she earned during her long political career have been either repeated endearingly or spat out like dirty words. An unsurprising reaction, after all: Margaret Thatcher will always be remembered as a tough nut to crack. While she certainly was a polarizing figure, few can argue that she was not a “conviction politician”, somebody who fought tooth and nail to defend her beliefs.
Conscious of her charisma, she was not afraid to criticise colleagues and voters alike. In 1968 she gave a lecture called “What’s wrong with politics?”, in which she was overtly critical of election programmes. “All too often one is now asked ‘what are you going to do for me?’, implying that the programme is a series of promises in return for votes. All this has led to a curious relationship between elector and elected. If the elector suspects the politician of making promises simply to get his vote, he despises him, but if the promises are not forthcoming he may reject him”.
Although she had to come to terms with defeats and compromises in her career – from the privatisation of water and the National Health Service to the debate around Britain’s role in Europe – she forged a reputation for being made of sterner stuff. Unrelenting and self-assured, asked about her economic policies in a TV interview in 1983, she stated: “they’re the right ones, not because they’re firm but because they’re right. If they’re right, it’s right to be firm”. This statement perfectly encapsulates Thatcher’s political style.
Comments and op-eds about whether her domestic policies were right for Britain at the time abound on the Internet. However, the most interesting aspect of her legacy is not so much what her policies meant for Britain at the time, but rather what they say about the state of our democracies now and, more generally, what they mean for the world today.
Are her views a mantra that we should cling on to or are they the source of all evils? Whether alive or dead, Thatcher always prompted individuals to think about what politics is about and what route we want the world to take. And while there may be disagreement on the answers she provided, it is undeniable that she posed the right questions.
Ironically, Mrs Thatcher’s death could not have come at a more opportune moment. Had she passed away 10 years ago, she probably would not have stirred such conflicting reactions. US newspapers and magazines have been praising her foresight and iron hand as much as Irish and European papers have deplored her cruelty and obstinacy.
The memory of the 11 years she spent as Prime Minister is urging us all to question our entire belief systems: what do we expect from the state? What role do we believe the individual should have in society? Is the focus on personal success a value towards which we should strive or is it the chief cause of our broken, atomised society? Was her unflinching refusal of European integration justified in the light of the sovereign debt crisis or was it just nationalist bigotry?
These dilemmas involve both sides of the Channel (and the Atlantic Ocean) and lie at the heart of all the debates we have been engaged in over the past few years, from the slashing of subsidies in the UK to the creation of thousands of teaching jobs in France’s public sector and the raison d’être of the Italian political class.
The Lady was not for turning, but she did turn things around in Britain and elsewhere. And her legacy is far from dead, but will most probably come back to haunt us for years to come.