Dissents Of The Day

Apr 9 2013 @ 12:00pm

Readers push back against my praise for Margaret Thatcher (and I largely respond to their dissents in the above video):

I’m sure you’ll just dismiss me as a lefty toady, but, good god man, not a peep about Thatcher’s willingness to demonize gay men? Exploiting prejudice is, if nothing else, brilliant politics. Doesn’t she get a pat on the back for that, too?

Tom Dolan points out that her record is more of a “mixed bag”:

As a member of Parliament (MP) in the 1960s, she was one of only a handful of Conservatives to vote for the decriminalization of homosexuality, a truly forward-thinking and brave gesture that she deserves a great deal of credit for. Sadly, as Prime Minister, she would squander much of that credit (ironically enough, for a politician who put such stock in thrift) by lending her support to one of the nastiest anti-gay measures of modern times: the infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which forbade schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

Dan Savage remembers the Section 28 fight:

I was living in London—waiting tables, seeing plays, stealing silver, pining after British boys—when Section 28 was being debated. The law prompted Ian McKellen to come out of the closet and it prompted some righteous lesbian parents to tag Thatcher billboard with “Lesbians Mums Aren’t Pretending.” Coming at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Section 28 instilled panic. It felt like this law might the first of many anti-gay laws to come. Instead Section 28 was the beginning of the end for political homophobia in the UK. Because McKellen wasn’t the only gay person to come out in protest. And you know what happens when gay people come out.

So thanks for that, Maggie.

Section 28 was and is indefensible – and I should correct my statement above that it was from 1981 – when it was 1987. But it was also part of an epic struggle between Thatcher and the far left that emerged after her first election, and caused the creation of the breakaway pre-Blairite Social Democratic Party (now the Liberal Democrats in a coalition government with the Tories). Local governments – especially in London where “Red Ken” Livingstone was ensconced – were constructing curricula of conscious radicalism. She was wrong to take the bait. But, unlike Reagan, she also launched a very comprehensive nation-wide safe sex campaign when HIV and AIDS emerged. I wrote the editorial in the Tory Telegraph at the time in favor of investment in research and public information campaigns on HIV and AIDS. She was a scientist. She was not a homophobe.

Another reader points to a speech in which Thatcher laments, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” Again, I think that was more about her war with the left than the issue as such. The context makes that clear:

In the inner cities—where youngsters must have a decent education if they are to have a better future—that opportunity is all too often snatched from them by hard left education authorities and extremist teachers. And children who need to be able to count and multiply are learning anti-racist mathematics—whatever that may be. Children who need to be able to express themselves in clear English are being taught political slogans. Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.

But its only real defense is that this was 1987. Another reader:

Even if you agree with her economic policies, how do you justify her human rights record? Her coddling of dictators and butchers? In Chile, Indonesia, South Africa, etc, she was so clearly in the wrong and she remained steadfast and unapologetic about it.

Finally, as a Catholic of Irish heritage, how do you justify supporting her Ulster policies? Dick Cheney is a war criminal and Thatcher isn’t? John Yoo is morally reprehensible and Thatcher is an inspiring leader? Is torture of IRA members (and worse, suspected IRA members) okay? If you can do nothing else, explain to your baffled readers how you can beat the war criminal drum daily against the Bush-Cheney-neocon cadre and still respect Thatcher.

I’m not going to defend her love of Pinochet. But the torture of IRA prisoners predated her premiership. Unlike Yoo, she was a fanatical devotee of the rule of law. And, as I have already argued, she opposed pre-emptive war as a violation of international law. Another reader:

Not to burst your balloon, but the hagiography of Margaret Thatcher has really got to stop. Two really concrete examples of the backwardness and stupidity of Thatcher’s politics can underscore what I mean:

First, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Thatcher immediately declared her opposition to the reunification of Germany, because such a unification would pose a danger to the security of Europe. Try for a moment to grasp the deep hypocrisy required to believe that. For decades the US and the UK used the Wall (justly) as a symbol of Soviet oppression. Thatcher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Reagan when he demanded Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” And as soon as the Wall was torn down and the liberation of East Germany from dictatorship became a possibility, she lost all interest in the liberation of others.

Second, Thatcher continued the Labor government’s failed policies with regard to the violence in Northern Ireland, and then played right into the IRA’s hands by ratcheting up the police state there. Rather than sitting down with republicans and loyalists and hammering out an agreement, Thatcher seemed to actually believe that enough troops and police and arrests were the solution. How many people died because Irish Catholics felt (rightly or wrongly) that the IRA’s shootings and bombings were the only response to a British government that would not negotiate a settlement in Northern Ireland under any circumstances? I would submit that a British government amenable to sitting down with the SDLP and Sinn Fein and the unionist parties would have been able to reach the very same terms as the Good Friday Agreement a decade earlier if not for Mrs. Thatcher’s refusal to even attempt a peaceful solution.

Thatcher was a groundbreaking person, a very overrated prime minister, and a fantastic orator. And given her opposition to things like peace in Northern Ireland and the reunification of Germany, it seems fitting that she will be most remembered for speeches where she proudly proclaimed her stubbornness in the face of contrary evidence (“The lady’s not for turning!”) and her politics of being against virtually everything (“No, no, no!”).

Maybe you had to be there. I was born in the eighties, so I really wasn’t. But I happen to value things like peace, freedom, and self-determination. Thatcher was in favor of those things for good old England, but only paid lip-service in the case of the rest of the world.

I copped to the Germany derangement earlier. Another reader:

I’m not denying Thatcher’s impact and historical significance, but I’ve always thought that you over did it with your praise for her. It seems to me that she looms larger for YOU personally than historically since her rise to power coincided with your political and philosophical maturation. Understandable, but I still think she is ultimately over-rated and candy-coated by you. Of course, I’m not a Brit, so maybe I just don’t know of what I speak, but I am roughly the same age (born 1960) and have lived through the same times as you, Reagan and all.

I get how you feel she changed British politics, and there’s no question in my mind that she was a damned interesting, complex, and charismatic person, but it’s the gauzy “warm and fuzzies” you feel for her that I question. You just wrote a bunch of posts about how pop music went after her all because of her policies, and then laud how she cut the budget etc. But did it ever occur to you that her policies really did cause hardship for many, that there was a reason besides the left’s “collectivist, envy-ridden” feelings? Two wrongs don’t make a right: the hard left and trade unions needed a kick in the pants, but that didn’t mean their original intentions weren’t good.

Part of my “Gotcha!” is I now regularly read you laud Obama’s “conservative approach” to healthcare, your adjustment to understanding that social spending is often necessary for the poor and powerless, and that the 1 percent sometimes need something – government – to stop them from totally subverting the system. So, how do you square this reality with your enthusiastic memories of Thatcher? Is it just that things were SO out of whack in the UK by the 1970s that “the left” deserved to be eviscerated at all costs just to level the playing field? That the “collateral damage” caused by her be damned, it was all about the process? That the UK is/was so different from the US, that the time needed her? Or, have simply you mythologized the time and made it grander than it really was? But Reagan and Bush 43 were “strong leaders” too and you aren’t afraid to even re-evaluate “St. Reagan” after all of these years.

The answer is yes – things really were that out of whack. The entire British economy was a propped up, inflated, inefficient state-subsidized mess. There was no way out of that without a major restructuring – and it began under her Labour predecessor who acceded to spending cuts under the direction of the IMF. The unemployment of 1981 – 1987 was appalling in its human costs. But it led the way to far lower unemployment in Britain than the continent in subsequent years.