Margaret Thatcher’s lasting legacy

Britain was never the same after Thatcher, nor will it ever be.

Any assessment of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy in Britain and around the world will always be made more difficult by the intense divisiveness that she inspired, both among her more obvious opponents, as well as within the political party she led.  More so than any other British leader in recent memory, she was the ultimate “Marmite politician” - you either loved her or you hated her.  Indifference was not an option.
As she did during her time in office, Thatcher still invokes broad praise and bitter resentment upon her passing.  She had a tendency to “handbag” those she felt stood in the way of the changes that were necessary to fix Britain.  Although she was more prone to compromise and deft action than her critics often acknowledge, she would not step back from a fight if a fight was necessary to accomplish her goals.
When she first came to national prominence as Education Secretary, and only woman, in Ted Heath’s government, she soon became known as “Thatcher the milk-snatcher” for taking away universal free milk for British schoolchildren.  Few would have picked her out at this stage as eventually reaching the highest rung of British politics, and the top table of international leaders.
Interestingly, her eventual political demise came from her own party, and the men whose careers she had developed during her time in office.  Her opponents in the Labour Party and other left-wing groups were not able to displace her at the ballot box.  In the end, she was too powerful a campaigning force to be defeated in a head-on confrontation.  Instead, she was dispatched ruthlessly by those whose loyalty she needed to rely upon.  Perhaps that failure has embittered her critics even further as the years has passed.
Although polls conducted on the day she died indicate that half of Britons thought she had made a positive contribution to the country, the voices of anger and disgust could still be heard very distinctly.  Of those surveyed, 20% still rated her as very bad, while only a quarter of the Scots and a third of the Welsh felt she was good for the country.
Those who stood against her, whether at the Miners Strike of 1984-85 or in the Brixton riots or along the campaign trail, repeatedly failed to get the upper hand.  Those who disagreed with her didn’t see principles or ideals, but simple divisiveness.
Certain of her positions, such as her views on South Africa, have not aged particular well.  The shadow of the Cold War polarized the world and this polarization was readily seen in her approach to international affairs.  However, she did champion Gorbachev when he came to power in the Soviet Union and she was willing to negotiate with the Chinese over the handover of Hong Kong.  She took several steps to strengthen the European Union before doubts arose that made her question the entire endeavor.  There were subtleties and compromises to be found in Thatcher’s approach to governing, just not as many and not as frequently as her critics would have preferred.
Obviously, as Britain’s first female prime minister, Thatcher earned a place in the history books simply for earning a term in Number 10 Downing Street.  This, however, was not enough.  She choose not to sit on her laurels.  With her country overwhelmed by a series of interwoven problems that had built up over generations, she decided to refashion the country and its institutions into a likeness of herself.
Much has been written about Thatcher having been born above a shop in Grantham, far from the corridors of powers and the chattering classes that encircle them.  Her goals while in office, although large in scope and controversial in execution, were simple to explain.  She wanted to do away with institutions that failed to deliver what was needed and a worn-out consensus that no longer functioned in the grim realities that Britain found itself in during the late 1970s.
Perhaps her greatest triumph, however, was not the changes she wrought to her country or even to her own party.  Perhaps it was the changes she forced upon the opposition Labour Party, as it was dragged kicking and screaming towards the middle ground.  Thatcher’s legacy was not initially secured by the tepid and wobbly government of her Conservative successor, John Major, who followed on after her unceremonious departure, but instead by the flash and dazzle of the New Labour parade that Tony Blair marched into Downing Street in 1997.
Blair’s own success at the polls three times mirrored Thatcher’s.  Even though he was prevented from beating her record in office by the internal machinations of his own party, in a fashion similar to what she experienced in the end, Blair’s government demonstrated in countless ways that rather than undo Thatcherism wholesale across the country, accommodations would be offered here and there to please Britons who had become accustomed to the benefits of low taxes and the pursuit of individual opportunity.
Many aspects of Thatcher’s vision for Britain remain on display in the country today.  The London that hosted the Olympics last summer reflected much of the courage and drive and self-belief that she hoped to unleash through her reforms.
Britain was never the same after Thatcher, nor will it ever be.
Timothy Spangler is a writer and commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.