Monday, April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher's Great Leap

With Margaret Thatcher's passing on Monday, scores and scores of obituaries, tributes, and diatribes have been written. These have run gamut from honoring her as the savior of Britain to celebrations that Thatcher--the wicked witch-- is dead. Some did not approve of her tough-as-nails approach to labor unions and her privatization of industry. Others cheered her liberty driven policies that helped turn the Britain around from the economic stagnation of the 1970s and her partnership with President Reagan that helped defeat communism in eastern Europe. A politician's legacy goes beyond his or her specific policies and outcomes to their impact on culture and ideology. Margaret Thatcher's conviction was shaped by those whom she admired, and those who admire her continue to be shaped by her legacy today.

Thatcher's childhood was not one of privilege. She grew up the grocer's daughter in a fairly ordinary town--not particularly urban or rural, affluent or poor- and often attended city government meetings with her father. Her father was her biggest political influence on her, but others were of influence to her during her formative years as well--including C.S.Lewis and Winston Churchill. In her book, The Path to Power, Thatcher notes that the writings of C.S. Lewis " had the most impact upon [her] intellectual religious formation" and that Lewis's book Mere Christianity " went to the heart of the appalling disparity between the way we Christians behave and the ideals we profess". During World War II, Thatcher, then Margaret Roberts, became especially fond of Churchill whom she would always count among her heroes. Also during that time, her family ended up being one of several families to house a Jewish girl to protect her from the Nazis in Austria.

Thatcher always loved politics and was involved in conservative clubs while attending college. However, she first received a degree in chemistry at Oxford, studying under Dorothy Hodgkin who later would receive the Nobel prize for chemistry. Thatcher would work as a research chemist for a food manufacturer that invented soft serve ice cream. Thatcher's true passion though was politics, and she pursued a degree in tax law that proved to be the next stepping stone on her path to power.

Thatcher first won a seat in parliament in 1959 and noted in her book The Path to Power the influence of a fellow female MP--Irene Ward. Thatcher was the mother of young twins when she first took office and contemplated her role of wife, mother, and politician:
The pull of a mother towards her children is perhaps the most instinctive emotion we have. I was never one of people who regarded being ‘just’ a mother or indeed ‘just’ a housewife as second best. Indeed, whenever I heard such implicit assumptions made before and after I became Prime Minister it would make me very angry indeed. Of course to be a mother and a housewife is a vocation of a very high kind. But I simply felt that it was not the whole of my career. A phrase that Irene Ward, MP for Tynemouth, and I often used was that ‘while the home must always be the centre of one’s life,it should not be the boundary of one’s ambitions.’
Thatcher's ambitions knew no bounds. Her conviction was shaped by those whom she admired--from her dad to C.S. Lewis to Irene Ward. While in many ways Thatcher is ideal feminist outcome, she rejected feminism. In fact, Thatcher famously said that she owed nothing to women's lib and compared feminism to a poison. She was keenly aware of her femininity though and famously noted what she was able to accomplish as a leader. She noted, "if you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman".

Although she did break a glass ceiling, the toughest ceiling she shattered was the "class ceiling" to use a phrase from Governor Palin's wonderful tribute to Thatcher. She rose from humble beginnings to become the most powerful woman in the world. Along the way she took on the elites in politics, as Palin highlighted:
 In taking on “Those Grandees,” she wasn’t afraid of having strong opinions and fighting for them — something the establishment often found distasteful. British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons recalled a conversation about this: “She said, ‘You know, Tony, I’m very proud that I don’t belong to your class.’ I said, ‘Prime Minister, what class do you think I belong to?’ She said, ‘I’m talking of course about upper-middle-class intellectuals who see everybody else’s point of view and have none of their own.’”
 Upon taking the reins as leader of the opposition in 1975, Thatcher called out the elites in her own party for "sneering at 'middle class values'". Instead Thatcher called for putting the people first and seeking the support of all classes of Britons.

During her tenure, Thatcher cut the top tax rate more than in half and reduced inflation from  more than 25% to 2.5% by 1986. She secured the Falkland Islands from the Argentinians and worked side-by-side with Ronald Reagan to help defeat communism in eastern Europe. However, her legacy extends beyond the policies and to those whom she inspired. As she said herself, she doesn't make little jumps, but great leaps, and those leaps helped pave the way for those admire her today and in the future:  Crossposted here and here.

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