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Columns

Lessons from the Iron Lady

A tribute to the most polemic figure of post-war Britain

By Sarah R. Siskind

In early 2007, at the unveiling of her statue at Westminster, Margaret Thatcher remarked, “I might have preferred Iron. But bronze will do. It won't rust.” True to form, her memory will continue to inspire long after she is passed.

Margaret Roberts was the daughter of a grocery clerk. She studied chemistry at Oxford, and she would later work to give the world the first of her many contributions: soft-serve ice cream. After marrying and having twins, the new Mrs. Thatcher trained as a tax attorney. However, I write not about Thatcher the student, the chemist, the attorney, or the mother, but, of course, Thatcher the prime minister.

The Britain Thatcher inherited in 1979 was in disrepair. Unemployment was exploding and inflation crippled the economy. Union strikes wreaked havoc and just plain reeked as weeks worth of garbage collected in the streets. This was Britain’s infamous “winter of discontent.”

Yet glorious summer would be long in the making. In order to strangle stagflation, Thatcher held tight to her monetarist guns, refusing to inflate the money supply and reducing government spending as a share of GDP. This meant unemployment hit uncomfortable highs, and social unrest erupted into all-out vilification of the prime minister.

During those years of double-digit unemployment, Thatcher certainly gave comedians, satirists, and journalists a lucrative job. She served as fodder for endless routines on “Thatcher the milk snatcher.” A comedian joked, “It was great when she became Lady Thatcher, because then she sounded like a device for removing pubic hair.” One British headline stooped so low as to read, “Is Margaret Thatcher a Woman?”

Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir preceded Thatcher as female national leaders. However, neither was subjected to the utterly contemptible British tabloid treatment—perhaps a shade more civilized than tarring and feathering. People remember the routines. They forget unemployment declined to under seven percent again, GDP rose, and inflation fell.

What was Margaret Thatcher’s response to the attacks on her appearance, her family, and her sexuality? She coolly replied, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

These attacks culminated in an assassination attempt in 1984. A member of an Irish terrorist group planted a bomb in the prime minister’s hotel room. At 3 a.m. the blast killed five Conservative members and injured 31. Thatcher, who was up working on her speech, narrowly escaped. Six hours later, she delivered her speech on time.

Despite the burnt effigies, the personal attacks, the vicious British tabloids, and even an assassination attempt, she was re-elected. Public disapproval was vociferous but largely superficial. Megaphones are louder than bank statements, and protests more impressive than GDP growth. She won because she divided her opponents. They were so completely caught off guard by this tour de force, she smashed the general election, leaving her opponents scattered in all different directions. In fact, Thatcher won with the largest margin of victory since 1945.

By 1990, the end of her tenure, Thatcher had strangled stagflation, led the West to win the Cold War, won back the Falkland Islands, and was the most despised woman in England. Britain was not kind to Thatcher, though history will be.

Thatcher held an awe-inspiring outlook on the caliber and capacity of human willpower. For Thatcher, each person was the author of his or her own unfinished autobiography. As a female chemist-turned-tax-attorney-turned-Conservative-prime-minister of England, all with the time to raise twins, Margaret Thatcher was the embodiment of individual resolve.

She was capable not only of weathering her critics but also of championing them. Her nickname, “the Iron Lady,” was originally an insult from a Soviet official. A nickname she adopted gladly.

Margaret Thatcher is not known for being the first female prime minister of England. She is known for being the defining political figure of post-war Britain—who happened to be a woman.

In her old age, Lady Thatcher lost her life’s two greatest loves: her husband, Dennis, of 52 years, and her indefatigable capacity for reason. Then, on the morning of April 8, 2013, the world lost one of the greatest champions of freedom. And we are the worse off without her. However, the Iron Lady never belonged to us. She belongs now to the pages of history.

Sarah R. Siskind ’14 is a government concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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