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“Divisive.” That’s a word that appeared, often prominently, in many news stories reporting the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
One senses the writers’ disapproval. You’re not likely to find “divisive” in stories reporting the deaths of liberal leaders, although every electoral politician divides voters.
“Divisive” here refers to something specific. It was Thatcher’s special genius that she systematically rejected the conventional wisdom, almost always well-intentioned, of the political establishment.
Instead she insisted on hard, uncomfortable truths.
British Conservatives like Harold Macmillan accepted the tyranny of trade unionism because they had guilty memories of the slaughter of the working-class men who served under them in the trenches in World War I.
Thatcher, who as an adolescent before World War II saved money to pay for a Jewish girl to escape from Austria to England, felt no such guilt.
She could see that strikes of shipyard workers, auto union members, newspaper printers, grave diggers and garbage collectors were ruining Britain’s economy and undermining democratic governance.
She worked hard and patiently, building up coal inventories, to prevent the yearlong illegal coal miners’ strike led by Arthur Scargill from shutting down the nation’s power plants.
She rejected the idea, fostered by the great and the good of the British ruling class, that ordinary people needed public housing. Instead she let them buy their houses at favorable rates.
She rejected the conventional wisdom that government had to pay for money-losing nationalized industries. Instead she privatized coal, steel, utilities and transport and let employees and citizens buy shares in them and partake of the profits.
When Argentina’s military dictators occupied the Falkland Islands, she was urged to accept the result. The Falklands were far away and only 1,800 Britons were affected.
But for Thatcher they were part of the British nation. She would no more allow them to be thrust under a dictator’s heel than she would allow Irish Republican Army terrorists to force Britain out of Northern Ireland against the will of the majority there.
Much has been made, and rightly, of Thatcher’s closeness to Ronald Reagan — though they did have their disagreements. They both hated communism and Soviet tyranny.
But first Thatcher and then Reagan perceived that Mikhail Gorbachev was, in Thatcher’s words, someone we can do business with. The result was a peaceful end to the Cold War.
When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 the consensus was that Britain was in inevitable decline. She hated that idea and proved that it was wrong. The great and the good never forgave her.
They never forgave her either for her suspicion of an ever-closer European Union and opposition to creation of the euro currency.
Continental elites saw European unity as a way to prevent the horrors of another world war. American elites assumed a United States of Europe would be as benign as the United States of America.
Thatcher disagreed. She believed that the nation-state, with its long heritage of shared values, democratic governance and economic practices, was the essential unit in politics and economics. A single European currency, she argued, could not work on a continent whose nations had different economies, cultures and traditions.
In her 1993 and 1995 autobiographies, Joe Weisenthal points out in Business Insider, she recounts the arguments she pressed on her successor John Major.
She noted that Germany “would be worried about the weakening of anti-inflation policies” and that the poorer countries would seek subsidies “if they were going to lose their ability to compete on the basis of a currency that reflected their economic performance.”
This has worked out exactly as she expected and warned. Fortunately for Britain, Thatcher’s successors were stopped, perhaps fearing her disapproval, from ditching the pound and lurching into the euro as the great and good almost unanimously advised.
“Crunchiness brings wealth,” wrote the Economist’s Nico Colchester. “Wealth leads to sogginess. Sogginess brings poverty. Poverty creates crunchiness.”
By crunchiness he meant “systems in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down.” In contrast, “Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty.”
Margaret Thatcher was crunchiness personified; that is what reporters are referring to when they say she was “divisive.”
Her death is a reminder that elites revel in sogginess and that every nation needs a restorative dose of crunchiness from time to time. Britain got hers from Margaret Thatcher.
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