It was only during a trip to Argentina a few years ago that I came to fully realize the import, in both Argentina and Britain, of the 1982 mini-war over the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The war is still a raw and recent sore for Argentina and a (mostly) proud moment of triumph for what is left of a empire that once never saw the sun set.
The Argentine invasion of the sparely populated, wind-blown and British controlled islands came at a low point of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s popularity. But, in the wake of the Argentine aggression, when Thatcher summoned her best Winston Churchill and vowed to retake one of the last remaining outposts of the British Empire her stock began to rise and she truly became the Iron Lady of late 20th Century history.
Lady Thatcher’s death at age 87 will set off a wave of analysis about her role in world affairs, her relationship with Ronald Reagan, who she once called the “second most important man in my life,” and her political legacy. The final chapter on Thatcher – “steely resolve” is the favorite description today – will not be written for another decade or more as Great Britain, under the current Tory government, sorts out its place in Europe and the world, but this much can be said – she was, in the spirit of that great British term, a “one-off,” a tough, demanding, outspoken conservative woman who played politics with sharp elbows and a biting sense of humor. And she often played her role better than the men around her.
One can only speculate that the military junta who ruled Argentina in 1982 never in its wildest dreams believed that an economically troubled Britain so far removed from the islands they call the Malvinas and led, of all things, by a woman would actually resort to force to retake a little patch of rocky soil. Channeling Churchill and vowing not to let aggression stand, Thatcher assembled a War Cabinet, which she dominated, and deployed the British fleet and the Royal Marines. Thatcher’s Royal Navy, for good measure, sunk an Argentine battle cruiser after it had been well established that the generals in Buenos Aires where simply no match for the Lady at 10 Downing Street. The same could later be said for the old men trying to hang on to power in Moscow. Thatcher’s legacy certainly must also include a chapter on her role in defending democratic aspirations in eastern Europe, particularly Poland.
One of the best and most even handed assessments of Thatcher came today from Richard Carr a British political scientist and historian of British Conservative politics: “To supporters, she changed Britain from a nation in long-term industrial decline to an energetic, dynamic economy. To opponents, she entrenched inequalities between the regions and classes and placed the free market above all other concerns. Our politics, and many of our politicians, have been forged in her legacy.” That last sentence may best describe her real importance. Every British politician today has to reckon with Thatcher, just as every American politician must reckon with FDR, JFK and Reagan.
Like her friend Ronnie, the “B” movie actor from humble origins who became a transformative president, Thatcher, the daughter of a grocery shopkeeper who fought her way to the very top of British politics, helped define an era. As the Washington Post pointed out Thatcher modernized British politics to such a degree that future Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair adopted many of her policies and approaches.
“While unapologetically advancing what she considered the Victorian values that made Britain great, Mrs. Thatcher thoroughly modernized British politics, deploying ad agencies and large sums of money to advance her party’s standing,” the Post wrote today. “The Iron Lady, as she was dubbed, was credited with converting a spent Conservative Party from an old boys club into an electoral powerhouse identified with middle-class strivers, investors and entrepreneurs.” Thatcher’s was the kind of re-invention of the British Conservative Party in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that some American Republicans only dream about for their party today.
Thatcher once said she never expected to see a woman as British Prime Minister, but it is a testament to her and her political party – mostly her – that she seized the chance when she got it and played her hand skillfully for 11 powerful years on the world stage. At her death there will be the inevitable comparisons with “the iron lady” of American politics Hillary Clinton, but in many ways the comparisons really don’t work. Sure, both women are tough and in many respects were tried by fire, but after those similarities the comparison breaks down.
Thatcher was old school. She beat the boys at their own game. She may have been carrying a handbag, but when she swung that bag she aimed for someone’s head. She was also unabashedly full of convictions and understood power. “Being powerful is like being a lady,” she once said. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”‘
Is hard to envision The Iron Lady – she once famously told a Tory Party conference “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” – making a YouTube video to announce a change in her position on same sex marriage. Thatcher was a true conviction politician, while Clinton seems to be falling into the same trap that ultimately doomed her presidential candidacy in 2008. She allows her handlers – Thatcher, by contrast, did the handling – to consistently portray her not as a leader of deep and important conviction, but as a woman of destiny, the first female American president who will get there as an inevitable fact of history.
Clinton may eventually find, as Maureen Dowd wrote recently in the New York Times, that she can learn new tricks and not merely be inevitable, but also necessary. “Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides,” Dowd wrote. “One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.”‘
There is, of course, nothing inevitable in history and acting on fear is never a winning strategy. Political leaders respond to events, as Thatcher did in the Falklands and to the Cold War in Europe, and either make their mark or are swept along by events they cannot figure out how to control. Thatcher left marks.
As Michael Hirsh points out in a piece at The Atlantic website, no one ever wondered – for good or bad – where Thatcher was coming down on an issue and, as a result, “she became the first female leader of her country, and she did it in such a determined way that her sex was almost an afterthought.” Put another way, Thatcher was a genuine transformational world figure by strength of conviction and by raw political skill. Nothing inevitable about that.
If Clinton does something similar she may some day have a chance to join the real Iron Lady in the history books. Today, however, there is only one female political leader – at least in the western political world – whose place in those history books is secure.