It is easy to accept how people actually feel about their politicians when those leaders were previously unknown to you. But when it involves the President of the United States or the British Prime Minister, learning the details can be confusing and even disconcerting as many Americans with neutral to positive feelings about the former prime minister have been discovering with her passing.
Of course it works both ways. Ask a British person (including those who live in the US) why Americans voted to re-elect George W Bush and many will be unable to provide an answer. Many disliked him (even before the war in Iraq) and they were never able to overcome their dislike enough to explore how anyone could vote for him. Similarly, the very positive view of Margaret Thatcher in the United States may tempt people to dismiss the reality in Britain that she was both greatly admired and loathed.
Americans tend to judge foreign leaders by their rapport with the President (especially a popular president) and their support for the US in international affairs to the extent that a forced departure from power can seem like the political equivalent of an unprovoked heart attack. Some years ago I attended a dinner in London in honor of a US congressman at the time when Tony Blair was stepping down as Prime Minister after intense pressure. To the amazement of the British hosts, the congressman and his aide explained that many Americans would not at all understand the reasons for his leaving – if indeed they were aware that he was doing so. Considering the months of 24/7 speculation in the British media as to whether Tony Blair would or would not be forced out and by whom, I can see their point. On the other hand, I knew that for the US media and public the news calculation is as follows: identity of the Prime Minister – important but infighting within his party -not important. For Americans of various political persuasions the fact that Margaret Thatcher raised the international profile of the United Kingdom and made her admiration for the United States very clear means that her legacy is mainly positive.
But it was Margaret Thatcher’s admiration of the US and of Ronald Reagan (whose popularity many Brits still do not understand) that raised the hackles of anti Thatcherites who equated both the US and President Reagan with unbridled capitalism and lack of sympathy for the poor. In addition, Americans who tend to use “England” as a synonym for the “United Kingdom,” will be not be sensitive to the resentment of people in Wales and Scotland over policies which ultimately resulted in a pulling away from the British Parliament as they created their own devolved governments: the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. These devolved governments were made possible under Tony Blair when his New Labour party swept to power in 1997. In that same election not one Welsh or Scottish Conservative was elected to Parliament. The reason cited was twenty years of neglect by the Conservatives and particularly by the Margaret Thatcher government. And the long term effect is that Scottish independence is now on the table. It may not happen but years ago a discussion of independence would not even have been taken seriously. Times have changed and Margaret Thatcher helped changed them.
She enraged inhabitants of England as much as people in other parts of the country over the introduction of the poll tax, something many Americans may be unaware of even though it was a major catalyst in bringing down the Thatcher government. The poll tax was a tax based on the number of people in a household rather than one based on income. One news interviewer particularly brought home the unfairness of the tax by speaking to a landowner who actually lived in a castle alongside his gardener as the tax was about to be introduced. They pointed out that under the poll tax their previous tax situation would be reversed with the gardener paying more tax than his employer, the wealthy castle dweller. The implementation of the tax sparked riots including in Trafalgar Square that were so destructive they were commemorated in news articles 20 years on. Interestingly, much of the discussion around Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is very much about the extent to which she used policy to re engineer class identity. This is where the entire era is of vital importance for US students who wish to understand Britain.
A recent survey of British people concluded that seven out of ten call themselves middle class. The survey was cited as significant because it signals the demise of the working class which many fear has widened the class barrier between people on welfare (who might have been classified as working class in the past) and everyone else. Americans may not understand the cultural associations of the traditional British working class as one with a long history and positive cultural associations. Mining communities in Wales are the classic example. A new term “chavs” has arisen in recent years for the working class and it has a double edge. Sometimes its a positive trendy term, often it is a term of condescension.
In the last 200 years the British have been fighting, struggling with and chipping away at their class system and that is why for many people Margaret Thatcher’s war on the working class (as they saw it) had the opposite impact of her stated intention to lessen class distinctions. Does she have admirers and supporters in the UK? Clearly. Her funeral has cost the taxpayer £10 million pounds and criticism on this point has been minimal. In addition to longtime supporters there are people who have, over time, come to see her policies in a completely different light. A woman on the BBC told a reporter that she was now grateful for the Thatcher policy of having people in public housing buy their homes – something the woman had been dead against at the time.
In many ways British prime ministers are more powerful than presidents. In the US powerful state and city governments are a fact of life. In the UK, power is more concentrated and also more political in the sense that cabinet ministers are all politicians from the ruling party (or parties today since there is a coalition government). This means the influence of a figure like Margaret Thatcher is immense. It is easy for Americans to like people who like us. But liking Margaret Thatcher should not blind us to the golden opportunity presented by her passing to investigate the complexity of the social fabric in Britain.
(Picture by BBC)