David Cannadine: How Should We Rank Margaret Thatcher?

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: thatcher

David Cannadine is a professor of history at Princeton and the author, most recently, of “The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences.”

...Mrs. Thatcher was a more complex personality and contradictory politician than the true-blue-rinse, pearls-and-twin-set, Britannia-meets-Gloriana caricature so beloved by her admirers and reviled by her opponents. She achieved more as a woman in public life than ever seemed possible in her generation; but feminists reciprocated her undoubted dislike of them; and having married a rich man, she enjoyed many advantages denied to most of her gender. She also claimed to be a “conviction politician”; but before 1974, those convictions were the conventional welfare-state pieties of postwar consensus Toryism, and she won the 1979 general election by not being Labour rather than by being the Thatcherite she later became.

In winning two more electoral victories, Mrs. Thatcher achieved undoubted and unprecedented success at the ballot box; but she was also the beneficiary of an opposition that was deeply divided between the fledgling Social Democrats and a Labour Party more extreme in its policies than at any stage in its modern existence.
THERE were many areas of Britain where she never played well: especially Scotland, Wales, parts of Northern Ireland and the inner cities. Although she was much more interested in ideas than Mr. Blair would ever be, most intellectuals loathed her, and she had many enemies in the universities, the BBC, the Church of England and the trade unions. So while Mrs. Thatcher was a self-proclaimed populist politician, she was never all that popular with the majority of the British people.
Nor was her record in power one of single-minded action or single-handed success. To be sure, she authorized the sale of public council houses to their tenants and the privatization of nationalized industries, and she broke the militant trade unions. But the decline of such traditional, 19th-century industries as coal and steel, and of the organized labor on which they depended, was occurring throughout the Western world: Mrs. Thatcher merely intensified (and celebrated) a trend already well in train....

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