The Flexibility of Thatcher's Iron Will

I think that some of the criticism and even some of the praise for Thatcher's iron will risks creating a distorted picture of her record. 

(This is a response to Margaret Carlson's column.)

Margaret Thatcher reminds me of a time when conservative politicians were willing to be controversial for the right reasons: because they were dividing their countries in the service of moving them forward, not because they had made some witless gaffe in the midst of a cautious campaign.

Now that she has passed into history, of course, the former prime minister is becoming less controversial. Even many liberals now appreciate the "vigorous virtues" Thatcher not only championed but also personified. She "did what needed to be done," as you put it, Margaret.

I think, though, that some of the criticism and even some of the praise for her iron will risks creating a distorted picture of her record. You write, for example, that "Thatcher's steel spine was often inflexible. Peace with the Irish Republican Army eluded her. . . ." Many articles in recent days have made this point rather more fiercely.

It seems to me to be quite mistaken. (I should note that I did a little research, long distance, for Thatcher's book "The Path to Power," although the connection was so slight it seems more like bragging than disclosure.) Thatcher believed that Northern Ireland was "as British as Finchley," but she also signed an agreement to give the Irish government a formal advisory role in its governance -- angering many unionists. The agreement did not produce its intended results, because the IRA still harbored the fantasy that it could win everything it wanted through terrorism. Thatcher was willing to compromise, in other words, but terrorism had to be opposed inflexibly before that spirit would be reciprocated. Her policies made peace possible.

It is often remembered that Thatcher crushed the mineworkers' union, but in her pursuit of this aim she was canny about how tough she could be. She gave in to a strike in 1981 because she thought she would lose and faced one down in 1984-85 because, having stockpiled coal in between, she thought she could win.

The notion that Thatcher was too rigid is not, of course, a revisionist invention. Many British people thought it at the time. Even many Tories thought she was hopelessly behind the times in resisting a European monetary union -- and that was the issue that finally caused the Tories to end her reign. Looking at the havoc the euro has caused on the continent, however, it is hard to reach any conclusion other than that Thatcher was right, again.

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