Dr. Martin Farr
Editor, The British Scholar Society
Of all the ways in which the death of Margaret Thatcher – how startling it still feels to type those words for one who gained political consciousness during the 1980s, and one who has ever since researched and taught aspects of her life and times – has provoked revealing reactions, the international dimension is proving to be perhaps the most significant, if not usually the most well-informed (Thatcher and Thatcherism show us that there is significance in even the misinterpreted, misinformed, and misleading interpretations inevitably more often than not evident abroad). It illuminates much of both the person and the ism, but also of Britain and the world. ‘Great’ Britain, as she was wont to stress.
Those surviving international actors from before her time (Henry Kissinger), of her time (George H. W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, F. W. de Clerk, Shimon Peres, Bob Hawke, Jimmy Carter), after her time (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton), and of the present (Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Binyamin Netanyahu, Jakob Zuma, Manmohan Singh, Shinzo Abe) have testified in the last 24 hours to her importance and, usually (at least in the Anglosphere, which was the sphere about which she most cared) the defence of ‘freedom’, however that may be defined. In France, Germany, Ireland, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and Cambodia, reaction has been markedly more mixed. But reaction there has indisputably been.
That Thatcher is being presented as an international figure is not least terminologically awkward. Though she had no time for such (as she saw them) semantic niceties as “stateswoman” (and there have been so few of them that to call her “an international stateswoman” is to demean her), she cannot be called a “statesman”, nor, with its bathetic air, is “statesperson” satisfactory. Somewhat self-consciously she published Statecraft in 1992, a guide for practitioners of foreign policy, which rather dismissed anywhere or anyone not of Anglo-Saxon – with its essentials of Christianity, market economics, the rule of law, and democracy – origin. That book was part of her political trajectory: rather like American presidents, British prime ministers tend to develop an increasing fondness for international affairs in their second, or sometimes third, terms, and often become, de facto, their own Foreign Secretaries. There, constraints and controversies are less constraining and controversial than domestic affairs and the hope of enduring legacies more likely. This was certainly Tony Blair’s course, as in other ways emulating Thatcher, and it was indeed where he appears to have achieved his signature legacy.
The only historical parallel – I would go so far as to say ever, given the requirement for there to be a global culture for such impact to be felt – is Winston Churchill (Charles de Gaulle the next closest). Most of the connections between the two are obvious, and many are exaggerated for all manner of reasons both intentional and not. Churchill is also serviced by a Churchill industry, and the memoirs and correspondence of others of his time, written or edited where appropriate to conform to the interests of later readerships. Thus any engagement with Churchill personally – however slight – is recorded for publication. As it was for Churchill, so it is – and today suggests is likely to remain – for Thatcher.
It was a measure of Churchill that, though a commoner, he was granted a state funeral in 1965 from an unquestionably grateful nation, as were the likes of Nelson in 1806, Palmerston in 1865, and Gladstone in 1898. There was for some time heated speculation as to whether Thatcher would receive – or be granted – one but in the end a compromise was reached that it would be a ‘ceremonial funeral’, as Earl Mountbatten received in 1979, Princess Diana in 1997, and the Queen Mother in 2002. Suitably enough, given her advocacy of ‘Victorian values’ and the neo-imperialistic flavour of the Falklands conflict in 1982, and doubtlessly to her taste and that of her supporters, the funeral will be replete with military honours. It will recall the Falkland victory parade in London, when, controversially, Thatcher, rather than the Queen, took the salute. The most pertinent difference with any past state or ceremonial funeral, however, is that this one will be notable for the attention being paid to maintaining public order.
In Britain, the reaction has been as expected: polarised. The stridency has been largely verbal (unable to moderate so many abusive postings, the right-wing Daily Telegraph closed all blogs and comments from readers for the day), but, as I predicted in my British Scholar documentary on Thatcher, there have indeed been street parties to toast her death, in London, Bristol, Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow, and there has been violence. It was predictable because there was no more divisive British political or public figure in the twentieth century. This is cited approvingly or disapprovingly according to taste. Internationally the legend is simplified and will be perpetuated by a variety of bodies, such as the American Heritage Foundation, with its Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, and, pre-eminently, the Thatcher Foundation and its website, which recalls nothing so much as a US presidential library, reinforcing not only the personality-driven dimension to the phenomenon, but also the trans-Atlantic one. It is a clearly politically-motivated body that nevertheless provides a record of unprecedented value in the study of British history.
To add my own slight engagement, I saw Margaret Thatcher in action, briefly during the then-fifteen minutes (twice weekly) Prime Minster’s Questions, popular viewing, one was often told, in the US, where it was speculated how the head of government (also of course the head of state) would fare in such a bearpit. It is I hope not too controversial to suggest that many presidents – and particularly Ronald Reagan – would never have risen to such a station, or maintained it for long, in the face of such regular and hostile public scrutiny. It was around 1988, and I was there as a high school student. I recall no more than seeing her standing at the dispatch box, with half of the chamber shouting at her, and the other half shouting alongside her. I was, I think, aware, that I was watching someone known all over the world, and now I know that I was.
Dr. Martin Farr teaches contemporary British history at Newcastle University and is working on a monograph about the international history of Thatcherism.