Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013)

Margaret Thatcher, who has died at the age of 87, was loved as no other British prime minister of modern times has been loved. Of course she was hated too, with abundant reason, and probably by as many people as loved her; her landslide parliamentary majorities were the result of a divided opposition, as much as of overwhelming public support. But all prime ministers are hated. Plenty of people hated Edward Heath; plenty of people hated Tony Blair; plenty of people hate David Cameron. To be hated by at least some of the population is part of the job description. Very few prime ministers, however, are widely loved. Most are tolerated. Some are widely tolerated. But nobody ever felt a spring in their step and a quaver in their voice at the name of Tony Blair. With Thatcher, they did—in their millions. Her supporters did not put up with her as 'the best of a bad bunch', or vote for her holding their noses 'to keep the other lot out': they loved her. They never abandoned her, even when her colleagues did. They mourned when she finally lost power.

To the grandees of her own party, by contrast, she was perhaps something of an acquired taste. She was awkward, dogmatic, hectoring, grindingly humourless, deaf to the civilized and patrician Toryism left over from the Harold Macmillan era. But, for her core constituency, these characteristics were so many marks of authenticity. With unerring fidelity she reflected and magnified the self-image of her own class, the class that rewarded her performance with such unquestioning love,—the British petite bourgeoisie. As a shopkeeper's daughter who went to university, obtained a decent degree by means of sheer hard work, and married into wealth and social standing, she embodied their ambitions. As a passionate foe of organized labour, she gave voice to their lurking fear of proletarianization. She liked 'Victorian values', the Crown, the flag, the armed forces, the police, and the Protestant religion (such as she understood it). She did not like trades unionists, the poor, eggheads, the counterculture, socialism, or foreigners. In all these respects, her prejudices were their prejudices and her plain common sense was their plain common sense.

Her patriotism, like theirs, was crude and jingoistic, an echo of the militarist kitsch that the British Empire had churned out for mass consumption. She inherited the British state's counter-insurgency campaign in Northern Ireland, and prosecuted it with gusto. She 'rejoiced' at the chance to wage an old-style colonial war in the south Atlantic. In 1986, she allowed the U.S. Air Force to use British bases for its terror bombing raid against Libya. But it was, on the whole, a more peaceful time, and she never had the opportunity to indulge in imperialist binges of the kind that have become common since the 1990s. All subsequent prime ministers have left office with more blood on their hands than she did.

The conservative petite bourgeoisie, then, who had tolerated Heath and who would just about tolerate Cameron, loved Thatcher. And she did next to nothing for them. Her policies benefited not the family business, but the giant monopoly; not the small shopkeeper, but the City trader. Masses of petit-bourgeois were in fact driven down into the ranks of the proletariat—a proletariat reeling from record unemployment and from Thatcher's war on the unions. The 'property-owning democracy' turned out to be a narrow oligarchy; the 'right to buy' left millions in debt to the banks. Eventually those banks themselves would end up, in many cases, being nationalized: the ultimate result of Thatcher's privatization has been a thorough interpenetration of private capital and the state, with the vaunted rigours of the free market replaced by omnipresent subsidies and bailouts. She promised to slash the state's role in the economy: she failed. She promised to reduce Britain's dependence on Brussels: it grew. Measured out on the no-nonsense counter of Mr Roberts's corner shop, it doesn't look as though she did anything very much to repay her supporters' love. But she wasn't 'wet', and she bullied people they disliked, and she was never 'frit'; and maybe that was enough.

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