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Donkin's World: A Woman Of Substance

"Margaret Thatcher was a hard working, conviction politician, flawed, as they all are, who put service beyond her family. She was no ordinary woman, no ordinary individual. Looking for a historical parallel, I would compare her with Oliver Cromwell. Old Ironsides is revered now by Parliament, yet after he died, returning royalists had his body dug up and hung in chains,'' writes author and journalist Richard Donkin.

Only now that Margaret Thatcher has died, and for some years to come, will historians begin to shuffle her administrations in order of importance so that she may be ranked proportionately in the public record. There is still some shuffling to do.

Where should she stand alongside other political figureheads of the 20th century? So many of the big names are despots. Hitler will never be shifted from his number one place in the charts; Stalin and Mao may vie for the number two spot. Churchill, Roosevelt and Mandela would surely be assured of a place in the top 10 with Lenin and Gandhi. If the chart was to be broadened in to other fields it would need to make room for candidates outside politics – Neil Armstrong, Einstein, Elvis Presley, Alexander Fleming.

But if the chart was confined to world leaders, I dare say that Thatcher would be high in the pecking order, possibly ranking close to John F Kennedy and Mikhail Gorbachev. Was she trickier than Dicky Nixon, more resolute than Ho Chi Minh, madder than Mussolini, franker than Franco, cannier than Castro?

You would think, having read many of the comments across the Twitterverse that some would place her in the same company as Pol Pot. That’s unbelievable.

Draw up your lists of despots if you must, but leave Lady Thatcher off it. Contrary to popular belief on the far left of British politics, she had a heart and it pounded resolutely in the UK national interest. When she secured that multi-billion pound EU rebate for the UK, her arguments were instinctively British, founded on the principles of fair play, thrift and value for money - cricket meets corner shop.

Yes, for Margaret Thatcher, charity began at home. In fact charity was not in her lexicon. She simply wasn’t the charitable kind. Thatcher’s belief was that to achieve anything in life, you had to earn it.

How this philosophy stood with inherited privilege and the duties of the monarchy was not something she shared with the electorate, except to be loyal to the British system of democracy. But that’s what Conservatism is – holding on to what we have.

No, she was not a despot. She really was an iron lady, possibly more than Winston Churchill was an iron man. She shared a few characteristics with the great man, not least his stubbornness. No wobbly knees or defeatism in the Thatcher camp. These are solid qualities for wartime leadership but do not always reflect a strategic mind. Churchill was strong and solid when we had our backs against the wall in 1940, but too often he meddled unhelpfully in military strategy.

A strategic, political mind, would have persuaded Thatcher to stay in London and face down the leadership challenge of Michael Heseltine that ultimately unseated her after Norman Tebbit had "left her to the mercy of her friends." Indeed it wasn’t strategic thinking that persuaded her to challenge Edward Heath for the party leadership, but the conviction that Heath was wrong and the persuasion of others that she could stand against him and win.

Whether her early supporters were backing her as the right man for the job, or whether it was as a battering ram, a kind of pumped up Berserker, effective and expendable, is difficult to assess, even now. Politics is a slippery game, littered with burnt fingers, might-have-beens and missed opportunities.

I never thought I would be writing anything defending Margaret Thatcher. I found her personality unappealing, far too strident for my liking. But we don’t elect our leaders because we like them, or at least we shouldn’t do. We elect them because we believe they will get things done.

A lot of things needed doing in 1979 when she came in to power. Britain was in a mess after the failures of labour and tory administrations in the 1970s to halt a decade of decline. Thatcher didn’t wreck the British economy. It was already wrecked by the end of the 1970s. Harold Wilson tried to persuade people to buy British. That didn’t work. Ted Heath took us in to the European Community. His party was all for it at the time, apart from the marginalised right that found its champion, eventually, in Thatcher.

She had an easy time of it at first when labour rallied around the ineffective leadership of Michael Foot. Electors weren’t buying his pacifist views at a time when people still felt threatened by cold war posturing and the arms race. Marching on Greenham Common with “ban the bomb” placards wasn’t going to upset the Kremlin.

What did upset the Kremlin was the high stakes game of economic poker that the West began to play under Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t that the West had a better hand, but it had a stronger pot of resources, forcing the Soviets to go “all in”.

In 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev stacked his cards on the deck, he knew the game was up. So did those living in the soviet block watching Dallas on TV. Margaret Thatcher played that game better than anyone. She never blinked and never allowed her wealthier playing partner to blink, kicking him under the table if his attention was wandering.

This is why the Iron Lady should go down in history as one of the big names of the 20th century. All those in the north of England who saw their communities blighted by Thatcherism can be forgiven their refusal to grieve for her. She wasn’t for carrying the wounded. But she was certainly for change. She also stood up against bullies and those who thought terrorism was an acceptable tool of political change.

Whatever the historic claims of Britain to the Falkland Islands, how could we, as a nation, live with the alternative to conflict, of accepting a unilateral decision by an Argentine general to invade a territory whose occupants were fiercely opposed to Argentine rule? Surely the Task Force was the only honorable response. Maybe that word has begun to lose its meaning now. Maybe there can be no honour in war, only sadness and loss. But to give in to tyranny is to lose something vital to the human family.

Margaret Thatcher was a product of the war years. She knew the consequences of global conflict and despotism. Her chin-jutting legacy was passed on to Tony Blair, who did little to dismantle her reforms. His opting to make war on Iraq a second time might even have out-Thatchered Thatcher. Would she have been as enthused by the so-called dodgy dossier outlining Saddam’s imaginary stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction? It’s a point worth debating.

It’s sad that the unions declined in the Thatcher years. All workers should have a collective voice in order to oppose the capitalist tendency to think of work as a cost to be avoided and cut rather than as the lifeblood of enterprise. But the unions had become corrupted. There was nothing democratic about the miners’ strike of 1985.

The ugly response to Margaret Thatcher’s death, often among young people with no recollection of her administrations, is saddening. If only they could know what it was to live under the Soviets or under the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Mass purchases of copies of “The Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz is infantile behaviour, the same kind of crowd mentality that set Barabbas free.

Perhaps respect is too much to expect. Respect is no longer something instinctive in our society. We have to be told what to do. I’m not expecting outpourings of solemn adulation. Many in her own cabinet couldn’t abide the woman, if truth be told. But I do think she deserves a little more than a doff of our collective caps.

The sisters didn’t like her because she was no feminist. Hers was the strong man of history doctrine - only strong with a handbag. She was probably right for her time. I think we deserved Margaret Thatcher in every sense of the word. In the end her stridency overtook her, her judgment faltered, but even she did not deserve the Caesar-like coup at the hands of her so-called friends.

In that sense Thatcher was a Shakespearean figure – a bit of Prince Hal, a smidgen of John of Gaunt, but she was no Shakespearean villain in the shape of Macbeth. Bad guys - the usual suspects - will rank above her in terms of impact, but history has a place for her among the good guys. She made mistakes. The poll tax was a big one. Her claim that there was “no such thing as society” was unfortunate and silly. Even her cabinet colleagues baulked at her style, but far less so at her substance.

Margaret Thatcher was a hard working, conviction politician, flawed, as they all are, who put service beyond her family. She was no ordinary woman, no ordinary individual. Looking for a historical parallel, I would compare her with Oliver Cromwell. Old Ironsides is revered now by Parliament, yet after he died, returning royalists had his body dug up and hung in chains.

Today there are those who would dance on Margaret Thatcher’s grave, but I won’t be joining them. We’re a better nation now than we were in the 1970s. History will judge her more astutely than some have done this week.


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