Woman with a vision


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Category: Profiles 14 Apr 13

The kind people 
Have a wonderful dream 
Margaret on the guillotine 
Cause people like you 
Make me feel so tired 
When will you die? 
When will you die 

Steven Patrick Morrissey 
    —English singer and lyricist

In all my years in England as a schoolgirl and later as a Masters student of journalism at City University, always loomed the giant, dramatically draconian figure of Margaret Thatcher in the background. Over 11 years as a student, I saw her an endless easy fodder of mirth, ridicule and wrath to both the “home” students and the “aliens,” as foreigners were known in the immigration line and the desolate home office where we would renew our visas.

What I didn’t realise then was that we were witnessing the final years of Thatcherism, a premier, who ironically by being reviled, was fast becoming a cultural icon of British identity home and abroad through the arts, television, music and cinema. Elvis Costello, the pub/punk rocker, famously sang, “When they finally put you in the ground, I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

She was a regular ghastly caricature in the puppet series Spitting Image, using her handbag as a missile, her mouth a garish crimson, her blue eyes button cold, on a satirical TV show portrayed, as a fellow journo remembers: “a cigar-smoking bully, a butcher with a bloody cleaver, a domineering leader ruling over her docile Cabinet.”

The episode that left us clutching our sides was a gathering of Thatcher and her ministers for dinner.  Thatcher orders steak. “And what about the vegetables?” the waitress asked. “They’ll have the same as me.” Nuff said. I have a memory of, if not exactly meeting Margaret Thatcher, being in her presence when doing my masters in international journalism in London at a press conference where, to my eternal regret, I was too cowardly to ask a question I had written down with a sweaty nervous hand.

I remember being impressed at Westminster at the number of sniffer dogs we had to get past to get to her. I was also disappointed it wasn’t at Downing Street, where I once glimpsed her through a bunch of policemen, flashing photographers, cameramen and dogs. I was prepared to be awed.

(By then she had bulldozed her way through the Falklands, subdued rejected the euro, did not support apartheid but refused to pull British companies out of SA, and all this with her handbag, unshakable confidence and hair, and shoulder padded suits.) 

At the height of unemployment, soaring inflation rates, when leaders would be tempted with the politics of populist handouts, her draconian myth unfolded, burgeoned. She stood with police, riding on tanks facing off (and winning) against Dickensian downtrodden miners, allowed striking Irish Republic prisoners to starve (one of whom actually died) and walked away apparently unscathed apart from a slightly disheveled bouffant after the bombing of a Conservative party meeting in Brighton, which killed one of her closest cabinet ministers, and maintained shrilly as only she could, “We will not negotiate with terrorists.”

Undaunted by those who accused her of favouring the rich, she de-regularised the financial sector, privatised state-owned companies and ultimately returned to power triumphant, riding on a resurgence of British patriotism, having recovered the Falklands for a handful of Brits.

Somebody at that press conference asked a question about immigrants. Immediately our entire class, made up of “international students,” sat up, paid attention, and being young we squirmed instead of being indignant at the way she spoke of immigrants, particularly from poor countries, as second class citizens, a drain on the economy who needed to be contained. 

I remember then feeling my heart sink. I think I hated her personally. I was longing to stay on in London for a bit and work, legally. While I could understand a PM wanting her country’s best interest in mind, I didn’t think she needed to be that harsh, and the world political landscape favoured Europe and America—the BRIC countries were nowhere on the scene.

At the time we didn’t see the irony of calling ourselves liberals yet looking down on a woman as a “mere grocer’s daughter,” nor did we see the woman setting records as the longest serving prime minister (’75 to ’90—it would have been longer if there hadn’t been a palace coup). We eagerly grasped on a soviet journalist’s nickname of hers—Iron Lady, which effectively dehumanised her.

It got a bit finally, as she stood, flames rising above Trafalgar Square in the riots over the deeply unpopular “poll tax” which contributed to her palace coup, and her own downfall. We should all be happy now. Strangely, we aren’t. 

We failed to recognise then that friendship with the Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan (who we despised, ridiculed and dismissed for being an “actor” and geographically-challenged besides), which brought the cold war to a peaceful end. Failed to recognise that in an economic downturn where most leaders would lean towards superficial handouts, she was forcing her people towards self-reliance, allowing state dependents to buy and own housing.

Failed to see her belief in free enterprise demonstrated her long vision, as it became a precursor to the opening up of many economies, including India and China, and eventually globalisation that has irretrievably shifted economic power between developed and first-world countries, although I would have loved to hear her thoughts of the possibility of China bailing out Europe in recent times.

She was loved and loathed in equal measure, but even those who partied, rejoicing at her death, could not ignore the woman who was Margaret Thatcher. Her impact comes from being a woman with a vision, strong principles, follow through, exchanging the gender issue to one of being all she could be as a human being, regardless of one’s sex or background; a willingness to do what she believed was the right rather than the popular thing for the country and people she undoubtedly loved.

The demonised caricature that was Maggie will be the first peacetime prime minister with a state funeral. Look out for her statue. I hope it’s in Trafalgar Square.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur