Earlier this week, Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, died. She was one of the most influential PMs the U.K. ever had, and when the news broke, the wave of emotion that passed over the world was palpable.
“Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead” reached No. 4 in the U.K. singles charts. Celebrations were held in towns all over the U.K., most particularly in Scotland and other areas more heavily affected by her policies. Obituaries in the British papers were almost universally harsh and critical, save for right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail.
So why was Thatcher so hated in the U.K.? How could anyone’s death, short of Osama bin Laden, elicit this kind of celebration? And why should we in America care?
Let’s look at some of her highlights:
Thatcher’s career in politics started off on a high note when she tried to do away with free milk for poor students in English schools, on the grounds that it cost money to give free milk. The Tories took an immediate liking to her.
Thatcher organized the downfall of industry in the U.K. One of her first major moves was to privatize the English coal industry, which was, unfortunately, inherently unprofitable and depended on a government subsidy. So when they were privatized, they almost all closed in her first term, putting tens of thousands out of work. Similar privatizations occurred in the British auto industry and aircraft industry, neither of which exist in any meaningful form today (even Minis are made in Germany now). British industry went extinct in the name of profits. She also tried to privatize the National Health Service, Britain’s socialized health care system, but was shot down when her term as prime minister ended.
She, along with her contemporary Ronald Reagan, changed the dialogue about socialism and the welfare state. “Socialism” became a dirty word. “Welfare” was no longer to help less fortunate people live a decent life; it was “government waste” given only to the lazy and other “undesirables.” Since the Thatcher-Reagan era, no politician could ever get elected in the U.S. or the U.K. calling oneself a socialist. She ushered in a new neoliberal era, where equality and decent living standards for all were secondary to corporate profits and individual rights.
Where she really shined, though, was her foreign policy. She refused to impose sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid, and she called Nelson Mandela “a terrorist.” She supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet even after the news broke that he had thousands of his political enemies killed. She even tried to shelter Pinochet from international prosecution after he was indicted for his human rights violations.
Thatcher escalated the Falklands War from a diplomatic scuffle to an all-out naval and ground assault. Thatcher’s government supported Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Iraq in the 1980s. Thatcher called mass-murdering Indonesian dictator Suharto “one of our very best and most valuable friends.”
Thatcher’s record on human rights isn’t something to praise, either. She supported legislation like Section 28, which provided provisions that “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Most local authorities closed down lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer support groups as a direct result of this legislation.
Her record on feminism wasn’t great, either. She stated repeatedly during her term that “the battle for women’s rights has largely been won” and frequently denied any connection with the feminist movement.
Finally, Thatcher inspired “The Final Cut,” which was undoubtedly Pink Floyd’s worst album.
So one can see, then, how Thatcher’s death might come as pleasant news to the people of Britain. Her policies were unpopular and destroyed the country to line the pockets of a wealthy few. In a word, Thatcher (and Reagan) broke the socialist system and then pointed to it and said “Look how broken it is!” We took that as proof that socialism could never work, that the poor will always be miserably poor, and that government is wholly incompetent. Thatcher set back the global political dialogue by 50 years, and even now we haven’t even started to recover.
Justin Roczniak is the Op-Ed editor of the Triangle. He can be contacted at [email protected].