B S Raghavan

Iron Lady or ideological die-hard?

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on March 12, 2018

Margaret Thatcher... evoking love and loathing in equal measure

The records Margaret Thatcher created have no parallel. She was the first woman to head the Conservative Party and that too for the longest period of 15 years, leading it to victory in three successive elections; the first woman prime minister in British history, who ruled the country with an iron hand for a period of 11 years, the longest for any prime minister in the 20th century; and the first prime minister to have her bronze statue unveiled in the House of Commons in her own lifetime, and by herself.

Even during her tenure, though, her style of leadership and governance had proved furiously controversial. The media was full of stories of her upbraiding of her Ministers in open Cabinet meetings, and tearing harshly into civil servants, sending the non-performing ones packing without ceremony. Her free market fanaticism and the three ‘r’s of governance — ruthless, relentless, remorseless — that she practised as the Prime Minister did not go down well even with her own colleagues who got the nickname of ‘wets’ for their pains.

I was in Britain in August 1984, at the peak of the crisis spawned by the unyielding stand-off between the Thatcher Government and striking National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and even visited some coal pitheads whose closure, and the resulting unemployment, had sparked off the worst confrontation in British history.

LANDSLIDE VICTORY

My visit came about within just two years of her triumph in the spectacular war with Argentina which had invaded and captured the Falkland Islands to assert its long-standing claims over them. I, thus, had two settings in juxtaposition that brought out the two antipodes of her personality.

As regards the war over Falkland Islands, the entire world had nothing but admiration for the unflinching manner in which she picked up the gauntlet thrown by the Argentine Government, over-ruled the faint-hearted in her party, government and even in the Defence establishment, and ordered the dispatch of a naval force to recover tiny bits of territory which were 13,000 km away from Britain and of which nobody had heard till then. The British people who had for long been feeling forlorn swelled with pride and gave her party a landslide victory for the second term in the election that followed.

The war she waged with the coal miners was another kettle of fish altogether. Here, her own ideological fixations with privatisation, deregulation, small government, lower taxes and wielding the axe against wasteful, unremunerative and inefficient state activities made it a sort of ‘dharma yuddha’ for her. If these goals could not be attained without crushing the trade union movement itself, so be it.

I personally witnessed, during my tour of a fortnight, the unprecedented ferocity with which she waged this war for a year against the 1,40,000 members of the NUM.

LOVE AND LOATHING

This is how an objective report describes the warlike preparations undertaken and the full force of the state deployed: The so-called uneconomic collieries were closed without provision for alternative means of livelihood for the miners. Coal stocks were built up as buffers against prolonged strike; power stations were converted from coal firing to oil firing; coal imports were increased; transport companies were asked to employ non-union drivers. Benefits were cut for strikers and their families. A special mobile squad of police to deal with picketing was created.

Everywhere I went, the misery and near-destitution of the mining communities were palpable. As per some recent reports. the privation has lasted until this day and some former mining communities are still struggling to get back on their feet.

Ultimately the NUM was brought to its knees, and the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) which used to hold governments to ransom ceased to count; and the Left movement everywhere got the message.

Therefore, despite being, after Winston Churchill, a political leader who made the greatest impact on British politics, and for all the gushing obituaries filling the media space in one unceasing torrent, her place in history is likely to be ambiguous in view of the love and loathing that she inspired in an equal measure.

Was Margaret Thatcher a ‘conviction politician’ who stood her ground, right or wrong, and spurned compromises and consensus in which dyed-in-the-wool politicians revelled, or a fanatical die-hard for whom it was neck-or-nothing fight-to-the-finish against those clamouring, in her view, for ‘entitlements without obligations’? Future historians will find it very hard to resolve that conundrum.

Thatcherspeak: If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman!

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!

Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word.

I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end!

Published on April 09, 2013

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