It is one of the underappreciated advantages of the digital age that when certain prominent people pass away, we need not be held captive to amnesiac, white-washing eulogies. So while President Obama lauds the late Margaret Thatcher as “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty,” it only takes a quick spin through The Nation’s archives to recall the magazine’s running critique of Thatcher and her ideology and, more generally, the great complexities in the folds of history now being steamed away.
In 1980, before his move to the United States and to The Nation, Christopher Hitchens profiled life in his native Britain—scornfully dubbed “Maggie’s Farm”—after “one calendar year of neoconservative governance.” Following the economic and social policies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, Thatcher and her fellow Conservatives had begun to tear up the fabric of British life they claimed to be protecting: prices skyrocketed, services were drastically cut, and the rich received massive tax cuts, all in the name of restoring national greatness. “There are no reliable reports on whether or not this enhanced national pride has made the unemployed feel any better,” Hitchens quipped. “Nothing concentrates the mind like a little poverty,” as Hitchens quotes one Conservative official saying.
In February 1985, New Statesman reporter Jane Dibblin wrote about the British miners’ strike, then approaching its one-year anniversary, which was perceived by many, including Thatcher herself, as the ultimate battle between the forces of austerity and the forces of resistance in Britain. Thatcher boasted of having already defeated the “enemy without,” in the Falklands War, and was now going after the “enemy within,” the miners. The strike cost the British government $123 million per week, but as Dibblin noted, that price was seen by Thatcher and her allies as “a worthwhile political investment.” When the miners voted to end their strike just one month later, The Nation editorialized that Thatcher had shown yet again that “her policies can only sharpen divisions, not heal them”—though the hope that her popularity was “finally waning” proved five years premature.
In 1989, Daniel Singer, the magazine’s longtime Europe correspondent, wrote about France’s preparations for celebrating the bicentennial of its 1789 revolution. He noted that Francois Mitterand would play host to the newly-elected President George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and German chancellor Helmut Kohl—“a party that appears more suited to honor Marie Antoinette than commemorate the storming of the Bastille.” Singer wrote that these politicians and their neoconservative/neoliberal intellectual counterparts, “preach the ‘end of ideology,’” yet “positively ooze their own brand of it.”
An especially penetrating critique of what the writer calls “third-term Thatcherism” was offered in April 1990, just as the premier was beginning to lose steam. Taking special issue with Thatcher’s proposed poll tax or community charge—or, one might add, existence levy—the writer attacked Thatcher as “the engineer of social demolition” and her much-touted “enterprise culture” that, he said, “has not only failed to address Britain’s long-term economic decline but has also brought an era of social decay and disintegration. The author of this well-worded screed? Edward Miliband, a former Nation intern, and now leader of the British Labor Party. (Tangentially, Miliband—who is currently trying to steer his party away from its 1990s neoliberal iteration—took aim in the article at what he saw as the feckless transmogrifying of Labor into New Labor. The new strategy, he wrote, “is marked by extreme caution, an avoidance of any appearance of radicalism and a reluctance to argue for anything that might not command majority opinion-poll support.” Words to live up to, surely.)
In a provocative adieu to Thatcher’s reign later that year—she was indeed, as Miliband considered possible but unlikely, forced out by an intraparty coup—Hitchens disclosed the still-shocking fact that he had been spanked—yes, spanked—by Thatcher at a gathering in the House of Lords in 1977, and offered a subtle defense of those aspects of Thatcherism he thought worthy of leftist emulation. After cogently summarizing the “foulness” of Thatcherism, Hitchens concludes that Thatcher—by “hack[ing] away at the encrusted institutions and attitudes that stood in [her] path,” by undermining “every ancestral prop of the British state”—“was a radical and not a reactionary.” Mostly, he thought she had shown that “there is power and dignity to be won by defying the status quo and the majority rather than by adapting to them.” Anticipating Obama’s much-maligned expression of admiration, in a 2008 debate, for Ronald Reagan as a “transformative political figure,” Hitchens concluded: “If the British left, which she froze into immobility like Medusa, could bring itself to learn from this, then we might not have to look upon her like again.”
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