Following the death of Margaret Thatcher… Britain’s first and, so far, only female Prime Minister… many in Russia are still struggling to understand the polarised reaction to her death back home. On Facebook, Russian playwright Yuri Klavdiyev praised Thatcher’s achievements, writing, “Rest in peace, Comrade Thatcher. You did for your country a thousand times more than [members of the Russian Occupy movement] have done for theirs”. Yet, whilst tributes poured in from landmark figures across the world, in Britain, the song Ding, Dong! The Witch Is Dead from The Wizard of Oz controversially reached no. 2 on this week’s BBC Radio 1 music chart. On the day of Thatcher’s passing, the Daily Telegraph announced that, given the volume of abusive messages it had received, it was blocking all comments on any Thatcher-related article. That was besides the street parties and other impromptu celebrations.
By her own admission, Thatcher had inherited a country rendered ungovernable by the influence of the trades union movement. Her solution was stark. Thatcher chose to pick a fight with their most powerful and, in doing so, break the will of the movement as a whole. The resulting 1984-85 conflict between the government and the miners’ unions at times bordered on civil war, with British police forces accused of acting more as militia than as law enforcement. That the government won is a matter of historical record. More subjective is the question of cost. Last week, former miner Darren Vaines told the BBC, “The cut went so deep, people have never been able to forget about it”.
When she came to power in 1979, Thatcher’s monetarist government was on a collision course with a young generation radicalised by the extreme politics of the late 1970s. As the government lurched to the right, the educated liberal opposition would step to the left. Joe Strummer, poster boy of the New Left, wanted to illustrate The Clash’s Cost of Living EP with a picture of Margaret Thatcher’s face and a swastika. Alexei Sayle, firebrand of the early alternative comedy scene, joked, “In the old days, people used to be named after what they made. Carter if they made carts, Cooper if they made barrels, Thatcher if they made people sick”.
Many seized upon the Falklands War, which almost certainly saved Thatcher from an early resignation as her popularity waned, as an example of her political opportunism. To howls of popular protest, Thatcher also resisted sanctions against South Africa, branding the African National Congress a “typical terrorist organisation” and inviting apartheid-era President P W Botha on a state visit in 1984. Elsewhere, Thatcher proposed that the deposed Khmer Rouge retain their UN seat for Cambodia. Even after her removal from power, she continued to infuriate the left, calling for the release of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
Last Tuesday, former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Martin McGuinness felt obliged to urge Republican households to stop celebrating the death of the IRA’s former “Number One Target”. Republican resentment of Thatcher grew throughout the 1980s, after her refusal to consider the political status of prisoners at Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison resulted in the deaths, by hunger strike, of Parliament member Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners.
Mass unemployment, climbing since the global recession of the early ’80s, snapped at Thatcher’s heels as she led the way toward her vision of a deregulated economy. Joblessness in Britain reached record highs not seen since the Great Depression. Dramatic cuts in government spending on arts, healthcare, education, and welfare, plus the deliberate sacrifice of many of Britain’s manually-intensive staple industries on the altar of modernity, further alienated an already-disenfranchised poor. All of this, coupled with the internal machinations of Thatcher’s own Conservative Party, would force Thatcher from office in 1990 amidst yet more riots (this time against her government’s poll tax).
For Russians struggling to understand the response to Thatcher at home, it may be useful to recall the polarising reactions to her Cold War contemporary, Mikhail Gorbachyov. Thatcher’s role in the end of the Cold War is debatable. Paul Dukes, professor emeritus at the University of Aberdeen, said, “Her role in bringing the Cold War to an end was probably not as significant as she and her admirers asserted. At least, the individual contributions of Gorbachyov and Reagan were far greater”. Yet, both Gorbachyov and Thatcher, though lauded internationally, engender, at best, mixed reactions on home soil. Gorbachyov, with his surname a global byword for postwar tolerance, only polled 0.5 percent in the first round of the 1996 presidential election. In a 2011 opinion poll, 47 percent of Russians claimed “not to care about him at all”. A significant 20 percent, reported “active hostility” to the former Communist General Secretary. As Gorbachyov leads the eulogies to Thatcher, he may be watching the dramatic reactions to her death unfold in Britain with one eye fixed firmly on his own legacy.
15 April 2013