“Less well grasped”

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the legacy of Thatcher. It begins arguing that “The outlines of Thatcherism on the socio-economic front are well known: rolling back the frontiers of the state, emphasizing individual responsibility, and championing entrepreneurial creativity. Today, the legacy of Thatcherism is ambivalent. On the one hand, Thatcher pulled the country out of the economic tailspin of the 1970s; on the other hand, her war on regulation facilitated the banking extravaganzas that eventually resulted in the ongoing financial crisis. What is less well grasped, however, is Thatcher’s legacy in foreign policy”.

He writes that the “sobriquet “Iron Lady” was bestowed on Thatcher not by British miners or Thatcher’s many other domestic opponents, but by the Soviet press in the mid-1980s. It reflected her reputation for toughness on the military and diplomatic fronts, particularly in the joint effort with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to strengthen the West’s nuclear defenses during the Cold War”.

Sims goes on to argue that “Three interlocking — but not always mutually reinforcing — impulses drove Thatcher’s foreign policy. First, the Iron Lady hated dictators and bullies of any kind. She refused to be intimidated by IRA violence, and she despised the culture of fear that the Irish republican movement fostered to keep its community in line. Her toughness on the Falklands reflected a determination not to hand island’s inhabitants over to the military regime in Buenos Aires, whose abysmal human rights record was well known. And her opposition to the Soviet bloc was informed by a deep sympathy for the dissident movements in such places as Czechoslovakia and Poland. Later, Thatcher was one of the few members of the British political establishment to speak out strongly against Serb ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.”

However he refusal to “be intimidated” by the IRA while certainly welcome also belied an ignorance and insensitivity when dealing the the government in Dublin. She gave the impression that Northern Ireland was simply her problem when in fact, if she had worked with the government in Dublin sooner and more willingly than much bloodshed could have possibly been avoided.  On more than one occasion she seemed no to understand the complexities of the situation in Ireland and in a perverse way seemed proud of this fact. Her attempts to sideline Dublin completely did little for peace and only made grievances worse. Similarly, she did nothing to halt the rise in Unionist terrorists and preachers that fomented anger among the Unionist community.

The article then goes on, continuing the uncritical style to note “Underpinning this hatred of dictators was the second impulse that drove Thatcher’s foreign policy: her passionate commitment to democracy. She was outraged that the National Union of Mineworkers refused to allow its members to vote on whether to strike, a decision that was ultimately made for the miners by an authoritarian, Soviet-leaning leadership. Her unyielding line against IRA terror was rooted in the knowledge that the majority of those in Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. Thatcher’s close relationship with Reagan was based, above all, on their shared belief in economic liberalization at home and democracy promotion abroad, at least in the Communist world”.

The article mentions her “hatred of dictators” yet this is too simplistic. She believed in democracy but at the same time did little to end apartheid in South Africa and at the same time giving support to Pinochet in Chile despite his utter contempt for human rights. Even after vast quanitites of evidence were found to show Pinochet’s involvement in murder and corruption she steadfastly stood by him . Therefore to oversimplify her record is at best, distasteful.

He adds later on that “Where Thatcher ultimately came unstuck was in her third principle, which was a preoccupation with German power — and a related profound ambivalence about European integration. She was a strong supporter of the European common market, partly because of her belief in free trade and partly because she thought that a reinvigorated and economically robust Europe would help contain the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, Thatcher belonged to a generation that had gone through World War II and naturally feared German power and German unification. By the late 1980s, she began to view the growing influence of the European Commission in Brussels not only as an encroachment on the democratic rights of the British people, but also as a vehicle for the reassertion of German power on the continent. This divided her not only from the French, for whom Europe was a device to contain its historical enemy, but also from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose genuine commitment to a united Europe she mistakenly saw as a fig leaf for the reassertion of German power. In 1989–90, Thatcher’s commitment to democracy and her fear of Germany were in direct contradiction. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet bloc cleared the way for the German people to express their democratic desire for reunification. Thatcher now expressed concern that a united republic would ‘once again, dominate the whole of Europe.’ For a time, it seemed as if she would team up with Gorbachev and French President Francois Mitterand to prevent it. It was only with difficulty that the United States and her own advisers persuaded her to accept the inevitable. Nearly 25 years later, as Europe struggles with its sovereign debt crisis and the ever-widening gulf between Berlin and continent’s periphery, Thatcher’s concerns seem less far-fetched”.

It should be noted however that this is simply ascribing something to Thatcher that she did not know about and came into being long after she left office. Any “foresight” she had was in that sense, purely accidental. Not only that but she did after all sign the Single European Act so any hostility she had to Europe was measured by pragmatism rather than blind rage.  The article does little to balance her obvious good points with those acts that will not be judged kindly by history. It is more a  hagiography than a piece of serious historical scholarship.


One Response to ““Less well grasped””

  1. A complicated women | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] more nuanced portrait of Marget Thatcher has been published in light of her recent death. He opens the […]

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