Opinion: On Thatcher, and uncritical admiration for UK prime ministers

Dr. Martin D. Brown
Dr. Martin D. Brown Source: Kadri Kõusaar

Images of Britain's, at the time of writing, prime-minister-to-be, Liz Truss, riding atop a British Army Challenger tank last winter and their similarity to another Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, were no coincidence, writes academic Dr. Martin D. Brown.

However, while some Central and Eastern European (CEE) people seem to have no problems in criticizing, for perfectly good reasons, the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, when it comes to British leaders, including Thatcher and the outgoing Boris Johnson, those critical facilities seem to simply evaporate, Brown continues, in an opinion piece which originally appeared on the website of Estonian daily Eesti Päevaleht (link in Estonian) and which follows in its entirety.

During the summer of 1990 I found myself working in Czechoslovakia, just a few months after the collapse of the communist regime. As you would expect, the enthusiasm and optimism upon the recovery of democratic government was all-encompassing. At least it was for most. The long hangover of the 1990s, when economic hardships, corruption and a growing disenchantment with democratic politics, had yet to begin. For that summer at least, the future looked bright. One distinct memory I have is regularly being bought beers by locals because I was British (My protests that I identified as a Londoner were ignored, and yes, I am one of those "rootless cosmopolitans" you were warned about).

Drinks were raised and toasts were always addressed: "To Margaret Thatcher!" At first, I objected, explaining I vehemently disliked Thatcher and her government, as did a large proportion of the British population. I tried to explain we'd much rather toast Václav Havel, or Alexander Dubček, not least to celebrate local agency in overthrowing the regime.

But no. Their reaction was usually utter incomprehension and bafflement. "Who doesn't like Thatcher?"

Eventually we just gave up and drank the beer. I figured it wasn't worth trying to explain the nuances of British politics in the face of such momentous changes: If they wanted to toast Thatcher, who was I to suggest otherwise? After all, that would have been "west-splaining".

But that was thirty years ago. Today, I have far less patience with people who try to lecture me about how wonderful Thatcher was. And many still do. Quite frankly, I just feel embarrassed for them.

Not because they admire Thatcher, that's their choice, but because they're so poorly informed about her divisive legacy, and how it's been weaponized in British politics.

Sadly, this uncritical form of hero-worship now seems to have been extended to Boris Johnson and might also be to his successor. If you want to idolize Thatcher or Johnson, go ahead, but in that case, don't expect large parts of the British population to be impressed, or to be in any way sympathetic to your stance.

This is a significant point because Thatcher's specter haunts the current Conservative leadership elections. Now that Johnson has been removed by his own colleagues, as Thatcher was before him, a mere 150,000 Conservative party members (0.3 percent of the UK electorate) will choose between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss as the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

To see what I mean, take a look at Truss, currently Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. She is busy cos-playing Thatcher in interviews and speeches in order, so she presumably hopes, to win the support of the party.

It might well work. Truss is quite explicit about her admiration for Thatcher, and mimics her clothing, policies, and public relations stunts.

The pictures of her riding atop a British tank in Estonia during a visit back in late 2021 were no accident. But the Conservative Party is not the British electorate. Winning the Party election doesn't mean she'll automatically win the General Election, in two years or so.

I lived through the Thatcher's 1980s. And just like Truss, my earliest political memories are of being taken on marches, chanting the slogan: "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - out, out, out!" I witnessed the deep divisions her governments wrought on British society, the many failures, and the scars these left.

Thatcherism, and its ideological cousin Reaganomics, were never universally acceded as the cure-all successes some people still claim they were. Thatcher's most problematic policies included: The fragmented privatization of the national railway network and public services, such as telecommunications, gas and electricity; attempts to curb the power of the unions, culminating in the year-long coal-miners' strike (1984-5); the deregulation of financial markets, allowing the creation of less stable products; the selling of council houses to private ownership and stocks not being renewed; the politicized interference in education policy (look up 'Section 28' if you're unsure what I mean); support for repressive regimes (arms deals with Saudi Arabia, her friendship with Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet), and the chronic under-funding of the National Health Service (NHS).

When combined these activities produced paradoxical, controversial results. Some problems were fixed, but a whole range of new ones were created. Radical reform of the disaster-prone British economy of the 1970s was undoubtedly necessary. But the long-term successes of Thatcherite neo-liberalism are far from obvious.

Other countries rode out the 'Shock of the Global' in very different, less ideologically dogmatic, and more equitable ways. The growth and stability of the post-war Keynesian consensus was replaced by ever shorter cycles of boom-and-bust.

Continued deregulation of the markets helped to lay the foundations, as Adam Tooze makes clear, for the global financial crash of 2007-8. Some in Britain got richer, some now owned their own homes, and many more ended up with declining salaries and less job security. British society became dramatically less equal, but then again Thatcher never believed in "society".

Equality was certainly never the point. I won't pretend I was personally affected by these events, apart from one: The 'Iron-Lady's' anti-Europeanism: "We want our money back!" she'd demand at meetings in Brussels.

By 2016 her, admittedly measured, Europhobia had metastasized into the self-harming idiocy of Brexit. I doubt Thatcher would have ever supported leaving the EU, but all the leading Brexiteers are her progeny. Every single one of them. Brexit is Thatcher's baby. At the same time, I am mature enough to understand Thatcher's legacy extends well beyond my own personal political views. I might not have liked her, but I can acknowledge her successes; she was a towering presence in global politics, and undoubtedly played a key role in the ending of the Cold War.

What I cannot abide is uncritical hagiography. It's uncomfortably close to a cult of personality. If you want to idolize her, go ahead, but don't expect me, or large numbers of British citizens to be impressed. But be warned, Thatcher is divisive in Britain (and much of the globe) and the more you evoke her ghost the more support you lose. Foreign leaders pay heed too, there is a good reason Thatcher's statue in her hometown of Grantham, in Lincolnshire, has been placed on an extra-high pedestal, and that's to avoid vandalism.

Oddly enough, forty years later some people still argue for smaller government, less taxes and more effective services – a distant utopia, always just out of reach. I suppose there are disciples of Milton Friedman who believe the market will solve all problems: From pandemics to Global Warming, the energy crisis, to the defense of Ukraine from Russian invasion.

The facts and conditions have clearly changed yet many seem incapable of changing their minds. Sadly, such people increasingly resemble Mikhail Gorbachev desperately reaching for the works of Lenin as the USSR imploded around him, as Vladislav Zubok describes in his latest book, The Collapse.

So, what's all this have to do with the possible successors to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the now-disgraced former leader of the Conservative Party? It seems to me, many central and eastern Europeans, and a fair few Estonians, have expressed the same sort of uncritical, reverence for Johnson as they once did – and still do – for Thatcher. And as they might soon do for whoever replaces him.

Whatever you might think of Thatcher, Johnson's two-year tenure of perpetual failure was bizarrely greeted with equal measures of 'Thatcher-mania' in some European capitals.

Johnson is a proven liar (and was sacked for it when he worked as a journalist), he presided over a bacchanalian culture in No. 10 during the Covid lock-down, and is the only prime minister to be charged of a crime by the police while in office.

His government's response to the pandemic was shambolic, and it was allegedly corrupt to the tune of billions of pounds. Brexit has not been delivered. Divorce from the EU remains an open sore: an expensive, embarrassing failure. The supposed "refugee crisis" (the latest phase of a "permanent" crisis reaching back to the 1890s), and the absurd plans for deportations to Rwanda, are a direct result of government failures to renegotiate the return of migrants to the EU.

Even the continued unity of the U.K. is in jeopardy. Opinion pieces now pose the question of whether Johnson was the worst ever prime minister in British political history.

Worse even than Neville Chamberlain, the architect of appeasement.

Back in 2019 Johnson's former boss, Sir Max Hastings, journalist, editor, and military historian, wrote: "He is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification."

Johnson has, to quote the novelist John le Carré, no decency. Johnson's only real skill has been in failing upwards, all the way to the top.

Some will read these words and dismiss them because of Johnson's support for Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine. But remember, Johnson repeatedly used the war to try and avoid being removed as prime minister. He failed. I've no idea how genuine Johnson's commitment to the defense of Ukraine is, but given his past performance, I am skeptical of any deeply held convictions.

Nor will Johnson's departure make any difference to the U.K.'s support for Kyiv, there plenty of far more competent politicians, across all parties, who will continue the policy.

Finally, let's not forget the millions of pounds in donations from a range of Russian sources to the Conservative Party over recent years.

More importantly, Johnson has now admitted meeting with ex-KGB officer Alexander Lebedev while he was Foreign Secretary, just days after the attempted assassination of the Skripals.

Johnson had a longstanding friendship with the oligarch's son, newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, now Baron Lebedev. The British Security Services raised concerns about his Peerage, Johnson quashed the report.

Does this make Johnson a Russian asset? Probably not. However, it does underscore his utter untrustworthiness. I am not sure exactly why some central and eastern Europeans seem to have no problems in criticizing, for perfectly good reasons, the likes of Emmanuel Macron or Olaf Scholz, but when it comes to British leaders those critical facilities simply evaporate.

Interestingly it was much the same with Tony Blair. I've listened to these arguments for over 30 years, and the novelty has worn off. I sincerely hope the new Conservative leader proves more competent than Johnson, but if they're not I hope to hear someone to be honest about it, 'to call a spade, a spade.

My point here is a simple one: Many central and eastern Europeans accuse western Europeans of having a shallow understanding of their history, of failing to comprehend the extent of communism's crimes.

That's true. But this lack of comprehension cuts both ways – it would be helpful if Eastern and Central Europeans would also try to understand the nuances, and problematic legacies of western political contexts, too.

The original EPL piece (link in Estonian) is here.

Martin D. Brown is a history professor at Richmond, The American International University in London, and divides his time between the U.K. and Estonia.


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