Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The Iron Lady Who Woke Britain Up
La Stampa - April, 2013

What makes a great political leader? One measure, most probably, is whether you still inspire fierce passions, of both love and hate, many years after you left office. That is certainly true of Margaret Thatcher, even though when she died yesterday it was 23 years since she had resigned as Britain’s prime minister in 1990. The reactions to her death in my country will include a huge amount of admiration, but also plenty of hatred, almost as if she had died while still in office in Number 10, Downing Street.

            The real measure, however, of a leader’s greatness is whether, by their hard work and sheer force of personality, they changed politics, changed their country, and even changed the way their citizens think about themselves. That was also true of Mrs, later Baroness, Thatcher. She made a lot of mistakes, and in her final few years as prime minister began to do more damage than good. But she woke Britain up and, taking her 11 years in office as a whole, changed her country hugely for the better.

            Some leaders exploit trends that would have happened anyway, they surf waves of change and perhaps get credit from history that ought really to be shared out more widely. That is not the case with Thatcher. There is no doubt that her contribution was personal, that she created new trends rather than exploiting them, and that much of what happened can and should be ascribed to her as an individual rather than to a collective endeavour.

            For Britons, the legacy of Thatcher is quite personal. For those who grew up or (like me) had their first working years  during the 1980s, she changed their lives. “Thatcherism” was first of all an ideology of liberalism, of reducing the state’s role in society and the economy and increasing the role of markets and individuals. But also it was an ideology of opportunity, of self-realisation, of meritocracy.

Recently, I heard a talk by a young, homosexual writer from Scotland who grew up in a poor community in Glasgow during Thatcher’s prime ministership, a time when Scots such as him and his family considered her to be a devil, a witch. This young writer, Damian Barr, however, sees things differently now as he looks back at his life. “I am not a Conservative,” he said in his speech. “But I am a Thatcherite.” What he meant was that his life had been enriched by the freedom and opportunity she had both created and symbolised, and that he had been inspired by her to try new things, to explore new places and ways of life.

That is a more open-minded and thoughtful interpretation than will be revealed by many Britons on the Left, who still prefer to see Thatcher as a devil. But such demonisation is a misreading of recent British political history. Thatcher dominated politics and political discourse really for more than 30 years, beginning in 1975 when she shocked her highly male-dominated and rather old-fashioned Conservative Party by winning its leadership election as an unexpected outsider, becoming the first female leader of a major British political party, right until 2007 when Tony Blair handed over his prime ministership to Gordon Brown.

Despite being leader of the left-wing Labour Party, Blair was deeply influenced by Thatcher, both in his pro-market, quite liberal economic ideas and in the way his foreign policy was strongly pro-American. He was as close an ally to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as she had been to Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior.

The party that she took over in 1975 looked divided and dysfunctional, unable to compete effectively against Labour. The country that she took over in 1979 was known then as “the sick man of Europe”, stuck in long-term decline, forever beset by violent industrial conflict, weakened by inflation, demoralised by industrial failure, tormented by a deadly civil war in the region of Northern Ireland that was Western Europe’s worst period of political violence since 1945. By 1994 when Blair took over as leader of her fierce opponents, Labour, it was his party that was dysfunctional and that needed to be transformed, and as prime minister it was he who finally brought the Northern Ireland war to an end. He did both tasks with much inspiration from Thatcher, despite disagreeing with her on many specifics.

For Italians or for other Europeans, the legacy of Thatcher, or rather the lesson of Thatcher, cannot be personal but ought to build on that affinity between Blair and “the iron lady”. The details of what she did in Britain, of the industries she privatised, of how she fought a war against Argentina or how she was nearly killed by Irish terrorists, are not particularly important to non-Britons. What is important about her is what she symbolises. And what she should represent to all Italians is the proof that nothing is inevitable in politics, that supposedly cultural or entrenched realities can be changed, including by a woman.

Women’s status in Italian society is poor by European standards and has deteriorated rather than improving, and this problem is often explained by reference to deep-rooted issues of culture. Italy’s current condition of economic sickness and of political dysfunctionality also leads many people to say that decline and dysfunction are permanent, that nothing can be done, that opposition to change is so strong that solutions are impossible. Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher stands as a giant refutation of those arguments. 


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