Personal Reflections on Thatcher's Legacy

Like her or dislike her, Margaret Thatcher has secured herself a page in the history books.

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Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2008. As prime minister she sought to be known for her policies, not her gender.

Scheherazade S. Rehman is a professor of international finance/business and international affairs at The George Washington University. You can visit her homepage here and follow her on Twitter @Prof_Rehman

Margaret Thatcher was the first and only female leader to be democratically elected in the United Kingdom (UK). She was the UK Prime Minister from 1979-1990 (three consecutive terms); Leader of the Opposition from 1975-1979, and leader of the Conservative Party from 1975-1990.

Let me make a disclaimer before I continue: I knew Baroness Thatcher. After she resigned I met her at multiple private gatherings, thanks to my wonderful mentor and friend, the late Sir Alan Walters (Thatcher's Chief Economic Advisor) and his wife Lady Patricia (Paddie) Walters. I had one-on-one conversations with the Baroness Thatcher, but let's be honest, for anyone who knew her, it was a one-way conversation and I was not the one talking (an unusual position for a Professor).

She was a force to be reckoned with. Like most people who engaged her directly, I too felt the need to stand to attention and was captivated by the strength of her convictions. I may not agree with everything the Baroness had to say, but the grocer's daughter was an impressive force – one that simply could not be ignored.

There has been much controversy and many anti-Thatcher demonstrations over the past week in the UK surrounding her funeral. The demonstrators are singing "The Witch Is Dead." Although it is seemingly distasteful to be singing such songs after a death, the reaction is a vivid reminder that she was a fiercely polarizing leader. She was oppositional and contemptuous of everyone who disagreed with her, both in the opposition parties and in her own. 

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

Let us assess her legacy through a different lens. What could possibly have happened in the UK and the world if there had been no Margaret Thatcher?

Well for starters, the UK would probably still be thawing out from its 35th consecutive "Winter of Discontent." Regular annual strikes by coalminers, public utility and transport workers and truckers and gravediggers would have left millions of people in the dark, in the cold, on foot, scrounging for food and surrounded by mountains of uncollected trash and rotting unburied remains.

Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but for those of you who do not know UK history, Thatcher was unwavering in her attempts to break the control of the trade unions in the UK. She believed that their leadership damaged the British parliamentary democracy and harmed the economy as the unions held the nation hostage through many strike actions. For example, in 1979, the total number of work stoppages across the UK numbered 4,583 (29 million working days lost).

Secondly, without Thatcher, the USSR (Russian empire) would probably still be standing strong, albeit economically decrepit and politically repressive. Her opposition, the Labour Party of Foote and Kinnock, opposed NATO's (and Thatcher's) stance against 300 new Soviet missiles in the 1980s. If there was no Thatcher, there would have been no Reagan-Gorbachev deal (in 1987) to destroy all of the new Soviet and NATO missiles, a deal that ended the Cold War and paved the way for the collapse of communism (which required the Cold war to stay in play).

Thatcher's close friendship with Ronald Reagan was a grand legacy, as was their shared wariness of communism. Thus, if there were no Thatcher (i.e. no Reagan-Gorbachev deal), the Soviet party-KGB-military cabal would have dispensed with Gorbachev and his reforms, replacing him with a hardliner who would have, in all probability, quashed the democratic movements in Eastern Europe and in the USSR.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Other things Thatcher was responsible for: She won an annual rebate for the UK from the European Union budget, which is still in place. She brought down double digit inflation of the 1970s (which peaked at 18 percent in 1980); by 1984 it was down to 4 percent and has remained low ever since. The current funeral protesters might keep this in mind every time they purchase anything.

Granted, unemployment shot up to 12 percent (currently the EU average) in Thatcher's first term in office due to her privatization efforts and the closure of empty mines and unsustainable businesses; but it rapidly plummeted to 7 percent by the end of the decade.

In 1993 (under PM John Major), the UK embarked on 15 years of sustained growth, broken mainly by the 2008 global financial crisis and ensuing recession. Without Thatcher, the UK in the 1980s and 1990s would have continued on its downward trajectory of the 1970s – and would be significantly impoverished and requiring even higher taxes.

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

Tony Blair's Labour government was the beneficiary of the Thatcher's conservative reforms. For example, unemployment stood at 6 percent in 1997 when Blair was elected. Blair knew it and that is why he didn't dare change the Thatcher policies. And that is also why, ironically, the conservative Thatcher is credited with having said, "…her greatest legacy was (the Liberal)...Tony!"

What about the Falkland Islands? "You simply do not take what does not belong to you…" - that was her simple rationale for fighting the war with Argentina over the islands. She did not justify her convictions and her actions with official fabricated reports of possible "weapons of mass destruction." Her conviction of what was "right" and "wrong" was reason enough to go to war.

Moreover, the IRA would not have brokered a peace on Good Friday (known as the Belfast Agreement of April 10, 1998) if it was not afraid of Thatcher's ability to act and her unwavering steel backbone. Her comment about the IRA prisoners hunger strike to regain their political prisoner status was, "Crime is crime is crime; it is not political." In turn, (in 1982) a Sinn Fein (an Irish Republican Party) politician declared Thatcher as "the biggest bastard we have ever known".

One thing is for sure: Like her or dislike her, even in death she will not be ignored. Margaret Hilda Thatcher has secured herself a page in the history books, unlike many other leaders who are historical footnotes.

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