I was going to write about something else this week but today Margaret Thatcher died and it would be obtuse not to give some thought for the old dear. I grew up in a family that was politically Conservative and at least one of my brothers, the famous one, is still very much of that colour, sitting, as he does, on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords. I mention this because it meant I had some knowledge of why people supported her to the very end of her career and still will speak of her in hushed tones of respect and admiration.
She was formidable, she was, by all accounts, an attractive person in life, and she was powerful in a man’s world, as politics was then (and still largely is, but that’s another topic). She lived a long and exciting life, if it ended in loss of everything, not least her mind, and she left her mark on Britain, though some would call those scars.
I voted for her in 1979, because, like a lot of people who voted for her then, I was fed up with the ruination of our manufacturing industries at the hands of disproportionately powerful Trades Unions and the inflation that was battering the economy (as I recall, it was running at around 26% per annum by the time she came to power). Something had to change and as here in Ireland in 2012, or in the UK in 1997, the need for change overrode any other consideration. By 1982 I had switched, somewhat pointlessly, to voting Liberal Democrat, and though I supported the retaliation against the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, I did not like her tone as a war leader and I was shocked by the sinking of the Belgrano (believe me, I’ve heard all the arguments on every side and I’m not going over those now. I was shocked is all, but I was also saddened by the loss of life among the soldiers on both sides, so what do I know?).
One thing often said about her is that what you saw is what you got. I don’t see this as any sort of vindication, any more than Blair’s weedy protest that his intentions were good when he illegally invaded Iraq. She was hard and lacked empathy; she was ignorant about the Irish situation, where she thought she could distinguish between IRA atrocities and British atrocities, calling one murder and denying the other completely, a stance long since proved to be either ignorant or a lie. She broke the unions, as she promised, but in so doing she all but destroyed the manufacturing industry of the country. The operation was a success but the patient died.
On the other hand, I think the one thing that stands out for me is that she was probably one of the last of the really top class brains, motivated only by her political beliefs, to go into politics. When you compare her with the poor intellectual quality of the current crop of people in politics here in Ireland and in the UK, like her or not, you surely must admit she stood head and shoulders over them.
Margaret Thatcher effectively left politics nearly 25 years ago and yet she still can command the attention of the world in her passing. I will bet she is the subject of a lot of editorials and columns and TV documentaries all around the world for the rest of the week and well into the future, not to mention the countless biographies and histories we can now look forward to. The interesting thing, in comparison with that other divisive British politician, equally admired and hated, Tony Blair, is that she never spoke of her place in history, and I would guess she wasn’t much concerned with it. She did what she thought she needed to do, what she thought was right, and though I for one don’t much like most of what she did, I do respect her integrity in that respect. She really was the Iron Lady.
But some of that iron turned rusty with the years in power. I heard a programme about sleep and our need for it. presented by Dr. Anthony Clare on BBC Radio 4 back in 1985 or so. One point he made that is pertinent here was that if you sleep less than five hours a night you will start to undergo certain mental changes. I have had my share of 48 and 72 hour days of working and I know something of what he meant. First of all you become hugely energised as the adrenalin kicks in, and then when that is followed by endorphins and such, you become supremely self-confident, until you begin to think anyone who disagrees with you is just a fool. The longest I went only sleeping two or three hours at most was perhaps a week and it had its affect on my mental state all right (I have the colleagues to prove it). A few days after Dr. Clare’s programme Margaret Thatcher gave an interview, also on Radio 4, in which she proudly told us she only slept three hours a night and didn’t need more. QED, as they say. She had begun the slide down the slope to a kind of madness that eventually even her own sycophantic cabinet could not tolerate and they chucked her out.
I am not referring to the later slide into Alzheimer’s Disease which is nothing but a tragedy and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and certainly not a politician I happened to be out of sympathy with. But in the last years of her power she became impossible to deal with, she explained nothing, she insisted on her rightness at every turn, and her handling of the situation in Northern Ireland was hopeless and based on the worst kind of political and social ignorance.
So like any number of historical characters, she will be remembered with every emotion available. I was sad to hear that people in Sheffield cheered at the news. They only harm themselves with the useless negativity of hatred. You can’t blame one person for your misfortunes any more than you can blame your parents. She did good, she did bad, she did things that we don’t even remember because they didn’t make that much difference to the course of history. But one thing we all know is true. She will be remembered.