The death and magnificent funeral of Margaret Thatcher has reminded us of what a divisive figure she was. My only personal encounter with Margaret Thatcher was when as Minister of Education, she was the guest of honor at the Carmel College graduation ceremony (we called it Speech Day) in 1971. I did not warm to her. She was hectoring and lacking in warmth. I admit I was biased. I should confess that I was brought up in a family that considered voting Conservative a betrayal of one’s intellectual and moral integrity. But that was at a time when Britain was still dominated and hobbled by class. The Conservative party was regarded as the preserve of aristocratic, military, wealthy, male Britons (and their obedient ladies) and it tolerated those aspiring to upward mobility. Most Jews were still closer to the ethic of socialism and the Labour Party (despite the ghastly postwar anti-Semitic Ernest Bevin). It was much more pro-Jewish and had many more Jewish members of Parliament in those days.
Britain was polarized in my youth, far more than anyone can imagine nowadays. Class pervaded everything. In the Oxfordshire countryside where I grew up, the Landed Gentry lived on their own estates and everything and everyone around them was kept at a discreet distance. In the village pubs there were two bars; the public bar for the working classes and the saloon bar for the genteel middle and upper classes. In the local town, Wallingford, there was one general store called “Field and Hawkins” for the upper classes, and a discreet square away was “Petits” for the rest. The wealthy went to private schools (ironically called “public schools”) and the middle and working classes went to state schools. There was an annual cricket game called “Gentlemen v Players”. Gentlemen were upper-class amateurs. The Players were the working-class athletes who were paid to perform. Upper classes went horse racing at Royal Ascot. The poor went greyhound racing. The Upper Classes went to work with a bowler hat and furled umbrella, the workers in cloth caps.
During the sixties everything began to change, however slowly. West Indian immigration, the Beatles and Rolling Stones who appealed across the class divide, all helped. But still, the historic grip of the Royal Family and its aristocracy was preserved. The House of Lords, still dominated by birth rather than either merit or democracy. It could interfere with or block the will of the freely elected House of Commons (don’t the names themselves say it all). Women might have had a vote but they were still regarded as the weaker sex. “A woman was expected to be seen and not heard.”
The Conservative Party was dominated by Peers of the Realm or their relatives. And into this atmosphere swept Margaret Thatcher, ably supported by her wealthy husband. I well remember the extent to which she was despised by her own party for being a woman with a mind of her own, and worse, for being the daughter of a grocer. That was the most damning insult the Tories could throw at her in those days.
Her own party begrudgingly allowed her promotion only because she fought for it, and most of them disliked her for dislodging the weak, anodyne Edward Heath. But she had the strength of character and will, first to fight her ground, then to overcome and finally to hector them into submission. It was only after a long reign that they were they able to turn on her and pay her back.
Inevitably, she was and is despised by the Left and adored by the Right. Her economic record is still a matter of dispute. But there is no doubt she was a catalyst for significant change in many areas. There were inevitably battles she lost or causes she got wrong. But she had guts. She took on the uncompromising coal miner leader Arthur Scargill and broke the back of union resistance. She fought against political correctness and turned Britain into a society where you could get things done and there were opportunities for rising out of dependency if only you were prepared to “get on your bike”, as one of her ministers put it.
It would take another twenty years before the Labour Party broke the vice the unions still had on them. Tony Blair became electable precisely because he followed Thatcher’s pragmatism and surprisingly, his more feminine approach. Even so, neither she nor he could control the abuses and costs of welfare. She was fortunate that North Sea oil sustained her economically.
She is blamed for being unenthusiastic about the European Economic Union. That was because she loathed lazy bureaucracy, incompetence, financial corruption, unnecessary subsidies, and decisions based on not upsetting anyone. Imagine, members of the European Parliament shuttling between two duplicating parliaments, one in Brussels and the other in Strasbourg, just to keep France sweet. She was right. The EU has shown itself administratively and financially to be a mess, even if culturally and as a market for goods it has been a success.
As for the Jews, she understood us better than any other prime minister. Her Finchley constituency was heavily Jewish. Her ideology was closer to Biblical self-sufficiency than Anglican noblesse oblige. That was why she got on so well with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. She surrounded herself with more Jewish cabinet ministers than any previous PM, and don’t think she wasn’t hated for it.
In the Old World they don’t like strong leaders who are unafraid to get tough. They prefer consensus. They look for compromise. The result is that they tend to either capitulate or awake too late to stop the inevitable. Thatcher was never afraid to speak her mind, to say it as she saw it. That was why the Americans always admired her more than the Brits.
Whether it is politics or religion, boredom, consensus, bureaucracy and vested interests all place a dead hand on creativity and innovation. The gutsy, radical, innovative thinkers lose out to competent conforming self-servers. Maggie riled her civil servants and loathed her diplomats. The epithet “The Iron Lady” was originally intended as an insult. It became her badge of honor. She was tough. And tough is what we really need if we are ever to get things done. Give me a gutsy leader I disagree with rather than a weak one who will not take a stand.