The Legacy of the Iron Lady

The blogosphere reacts to the death of Britain's polarizing former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gestures to members of the media in central London, Monday June 29, 2009.
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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died Monday of a stroke at the age of 87. She was the country's only female and longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, and a close ally of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher is a controversial figure in British politics, having scaled back the reach of the government, privatized utilities and weakened unions. "The Iron Lady" also staunchly opposed communism and took a hard stand against Soviet expansionism . Following the announcement of her death, the blogosphere reacted to the polarizing figure.

David Frum from the Daily Beast explains that while Thatcher was certainly not embraced by all in British politics, the fact that Tony Blair continued her policies shows her success:

[T]he great politicians leave a legacy that is accepted even by their opponents. Blair accepted Thatcher's changes to Britain's labor laws. He accepted the end of price controls. He accepted the privatization of industry. He accepted that government spending could not rise indefinitely. He accepted the role of the entrepreneur in the modern economy. "She won the arguments that mattered," observes her great biographer Charles Moore in an essay for Vanity Fair. This is what winning looks like: it comes when your opponents agree that you were right. (Or - more exactly - when your opponents die, and their children agree that you were right.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

He also went on to note that Thatcher's policies towards homosexuality and climate change were before her time:

She was a pioneer for previously excluded minorities – and for women, no minority at all. Tom Doran reminds elsewhere on the site that Thatcher was one of the few Conservatives to vote for the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1960. She welcomed Jews into her cabinet, prompting the snide joke that she favored "Old Estonians over Old Etonians." She promoted talent regardless of background and opened the way to an entrepreneurial Britain where acumen mattered more than accent.

Thatcher was a woman of fierce principle. Yet – and here contemporary conservatives can take another lesson from her – she lived by facts, not theories. She was among the first world leaders to recognize the reality and threat of climate change. She appreciated the devotion of her country to its National Health Service and never challenged that deeply rooted British institution. She met and mastered the challenges of her time; she bequeaths to her successors the responsibility to do the same with the very different challenges of their time.

[See Photos: The Life of Margaret Thatcher: 1925-2013]

Catherine Mayer of Time praised Thatcher and Reagan for their stance against communism, and for playing a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. She also notes that the Iron Lady's hard-headedness is what made her such an effective politician:

By standing shoulder to shoulder with Reagan and calling Soviet communism for what it was – a cruel sham, an economic failure – she helped liberate those Russians and east Europeans who had spent generations with their dreams on hold. Many of her own countrymen will never accept that she performed a similar function for Britons. She was not an empathetic person, not one to suffer fools gladly (or at all), not one who could appreciate that men, women and families could imagine different ways to a satisfying life from the one that she thought best. She was hard-headed, perhaps hard-hearted. She was that most polarizing of beings: a conviction politician. In our current age of weak leaders transfixed by oncoming global crises like rabbits in the headlights, it's sobering to realize that the Lady's not for returning.

While many laud both Thatcher and Reagan for their belief that government better served the people if there was less of it, Ed Kilgore of Political Animal said history has blurred the negative effects their domestic policies had:

"Neutral" historians have often viewed both leaders as having served as a "corrective" to the "excesses" of liberalism (or in Thatcher's case, democratic socialism) whose policies eventually wore out their welcome; while Reagan's approval ratings were generally good during his second term, his party lost control of Congress in 1986 in a notably bad performance. For poor and middle-class folk who experienced both regimes, however, life could be difficult at the "best of times," and both Thatcher and Reagan aroused a degree of bitter opposition that has been blurred by time.

Corrected 04/08/2013: A previous version of this blog post stated that Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s longest serving prime minister. Thatcher was the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century, not the country’s entire history.