No one coming of age today can understand fully what it meant to be a young politically-inclined woman when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s Prime Minister. I mourn her now and will honor her memory.
In the early 1980s, I was in college studying political science. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree, but public policy fascinated me above all. Little did I realize back then how my formal education was coinciding with an extraordinary moment in history. Of all the texts I devoured in those days, none save our nation’s founding documents was more important than the daily newspaper.
Pope John Paul II was revolutionary in his definitive solidarity with oppressed people worldwide, especially those in eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan from his earliest days in office was unlike any President I could remember. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had been exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, was in Vermont continuing to bear witness to the gulag. The Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran was showing us that overthrowing one oppressive government didn’t necessarily mean good times in the new one. Those men were changing the world.
Thatcher stood out to me at first simply because she was a woman. I looked up to women in politics. There was no shortage of female activists. Female leaders, on the other hand, were rare. Thatcher got my attention because she was unique.
I rolled my eyes at that straight-from-the-Fifties hair style. When she started talking, though, matters like hair style went out the window.
No apologies for being Prime Minister over so many men. No hesitation about working with other leaders as an equal. No backing down to bluster or caving in to threats. All of this left an impression on me.
All this, and she could win elections, too. It’s easy for Americans to forget that Britain’s Prime Minister has to keep her or his own little constituency happy, or else it’s back to private life.
Thatcher could take me aback. Two decision points come to mind. Her government outlasted a long and contentious strike by coal miners. (As I write this, at least one miners’ union official is calling her death “a great day.”) More dramatic to me was the way she nearly succeeded in making Bobby Sands into a sympathetic figure. One could almost but not quite forget that Sands, who died in prison after a two-month hunger strike, was a hero of the Provisional IRA. His death left Thatcher unmoved. “Mr. Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims.”
Stern stuff, and no apologies, on all sides.
More stern stuff: she cooperated with Reagan and Pope John Paul in fostering the conditions that ended the Cold War. Other writers, notably John O’Sullivan, have treated that relationship at length. Thatcher gave the lie to nonsense about Reagan and John Paul giving women second-class treatment.
O’Sullivan, who worked with Thatcher, has spoken of how kind and supportive she was to the Downing Street support staff whose wholly non-political work was done out of the public eye. At the same time, according to O’Sullivan, she was demanding and exacting when government ministers reported to her. They were working for the nation, not for her.
My interest in public policy abides to this day. My path has been nothing like Margaret Thatcher’s. Undeniably, though, she was an inspiration to me. She broadened my view of what politics means and what it can cost. She did not dwell in the realm of the theoretical. She governed knowing that she was affecting people’s lives. She was impossible for me to ignore and she’ll be impossible for me to forget. May she rest in peace.