Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thatcher, the passing of a divisive leader

Baroness Thatcher, one of Britain's most well known former Prime Minister passed away this week at the age of 87 from a stroke. Her passing perhaps came as little surprise having suffered from ill-health and dementia for several years. But the news still came as a shock for some, and even delight in others as they revelled in the passing of the former PM who divided a nation.


Some people took to the streets to celebrate her passing. Parties were held in several parts of the UK on Monday night, hours after the announcement of her death. Gatherings took place in Brixton in London, in Glasgow and in Bristol, where several police officers were hurt during violent clashes.

Six officers were injured as they tried to break up a gathering of around 200 people and were pelted with bottles and cans. One officer remained in hospital on Wednesday. Police said that one person was arrested for violent disorder [BBC].

In Brixton in south London, windows were smashed and shops looted as more than 100 people gathered in the area. Police said two women were arrested on suspicion of burglary. Some of the revellers scaled the nearby Ritzy Cinema and changed the film listings to read "Margaret Thatchers dead".

Such scenes were condemned by local and national politicians on both sides of the bench. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC he thought the scenes of celebration were in poor taste.

"I think that's pretty poor taste. You've got to, even if you disagree with someone very strongly - particularly at the moment of their passing - show some respect," Blair said [BBC / Telegraph].

Meanwhile local councillor Alex Bigham condemned the celebrations in Brixton as "disgraceful", adding, "Even if you detested her policies, many of which I did, it is tasteless posturing" [Twitter]. Bristol's independent Mayor George Ferguson said the gathering in his city was also in "thoroughly bad taste".

"There are strong feelings about Margaret Thatcher but I think it's in very bad taste to be dancing on her grave and it's a shame this should have happened in Bristol."

Impact on society

While Thatcher undoubtedly cause rifts in some sections of society particularly amongst the working classes, she also brought about major changes to British politics and Britain.

She began a course of privatisation of many state owned industries, brought about a financial boom, attempted to tackle Britain's manufacturing decline by drawing in foreign investment, most notable Nissan. Home ownership soared as she also created a way for people to buy their own council house and she dramatically changed union laws in order curtail the often destructive effect repeated strikes were inflicting upon British society.

When historians look back at the Thatcher years, the familiar landmarks that will surely loom largest are the battle over the economy in the early 1980s, the victory in the Falklands in 1982, the bitter struggle with the miners in 1984-85, the deregulation of the City in 1986, the disastrous introduction of the Poll Tax, and the high drama of her resignation in 1990.

But such landmarks ignore some of her more important achievements. By the time of her leaving office taxes were lower, strikes were down, productivity growth was much improved and far from fleeing Britain, as they had once threatened to do, foreign investors were now queuing to get in. This trend symbolised above all by Nissan's groundbreaking investment in the North East of England.

Some of the negatives came with booming unemployment which hit around 3.6 million, though it is arguable that unemployment may well have grown anyway and was already at 1.5 million and rising when she took office. Some too have argued that her deregulation of the City was what set the ball rolling for the financial collapse seen more than two decades later. Though again this is wild and fanciful speculation.

Adoration abroad

Beyond Britain's borders, Thatcher often courted far more adoration than at home. The former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus said, "Thatcher was one of the greatest politicians of our time. In the Czech Republic she was our hero." In fact for many who broke the shackles of communism, Thatcher was seen as an inspiration.

In a now vastly changed Russia, Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister said, "Margaret Thatcher was an outstanding politician, her political views invited varied opinions but her political will commanded respect."

On the other side of the pond the US president offered nothing but praise Obama focused on her success in breaking gender barriers. "As a grocer's daughter who rose to become Britain's first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can't be shattered," the president said.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been dubbed the Iron Lady of Europe for her tough line over the eurozone crisis, called Thatcher a "formidable leader in world politics in her time".

China's tempered response

China offered no official statement. The only comment came through the state run Global Times newspaper from Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the populist paper. "People's most striking memory is of her 'being tough'. As a successful woman in politics, she was revered. As a politician, her experience and policies stirred feelings," Hu wrote. "The 'Iron Lady' era is over. Today is the era of cooperation."

Of course there was no mention of Thatcher's condemnation of Chinese troops opening fire on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Shortly after the massacre of up to 3,000 people, she expressed "utter revulsion and outrage", and said she was "appalled by the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people."

Her role in the handover of Hong Kong was briefly mentioned in some Chinese papers which focused more particularly on her dealings with Deng Xiaoping.

Shi Yinhong, an expert on foreign relations at Renmin University, said, "I think Chinese people respected her and positively assessed her historical role."

"Although in the process of Hong Kong's return to China and the negotiations there were some difficulties between Mrs Thatcher and our great leader Deng Xiaoping, Britain and China successfully overcame them and both sides made efforts to smooth the transfer of sovereignty."

However he did not mention the feelings of abandonment that some Hong Kong citizens felt as the handover agreement was signed.

When Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Deng Xiaoping in 1984 there was criticism from many Hong Kong residents that they had been abandoned to a totalitarian regime. During one meeting before the press and interested parties she was asked whether her decision was ethical.

"Prime Minister, on Wednesday you signed an agreement with China promising to deliver the handover of 5 million people into the hands of a Communist dictatorship. Is this morally defensible?" Emily Lau, a Hong Kong Legislative Councillor at the time, asked.

Thatcher dismissed her concerns saying her views were likely the exception. "I think you would have had great cause to complain had the government of Great Britain done nothing until 1997. And I believe that most of the people, indeed the overwhelming number of people in Hong Kong think the same," the then Prime Minister responded [ABC full transcript].

Past regrets

More than two decades later and ten years after the handover to China, Margaret Thatcher expressed her regret at not being able to negotiate an extension of the lease. In a radio interview with the BBC she said she faced an "impossible" situation. The interview secured with David Tang a was broadcast as part of the BBC Radio 4 series Hong Kong: A Decade of Change [Telegraph].

"What I wanted was a continuation of British administration," she said. "But when this proved impossible, I saw the opportunity to preserve most of what was unique to Hong Kong through applying Mr Deng's [one country, two systems] idea to our circumstances." [Shanghaiist - YouTube]

Other regrets

She left office with many regrets concerning her own country. Effectively abandoned by her own party and consigned to the House of Lords, she eventually faded from politics altogether. In 1995 she revealed that in hindsight she would have not entered politics. "If I had my time again, I wouldn't go into politics because of what it does to your family," she told Lord Spicer who published his diaries only last year [D Mail].

The grocer's daughter who became the longest serving female politician leaves behind a much disputed legacy. She also leaves mixed feelings for those she affected though her policies during her political career.

Whatever one feels about this divisive politician, she certainly won't fade from history, and is unlikely to be forgotten.

tvnewswatch, Yunnan, China

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