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Visitors sign a condolence book for the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Grantham, central England.
Visitors sign a condolence book for the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Grantham, central England.

Margaret Thatcher splits the UK, even in death

Britain's first female prime minister shook the country to the core in her 11 years in power, but she was loved and loathed in equal measure. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // Just as she divided people when she was alive, Margaret Thatcher's legacy is proving to be equally divisive.

The only agreement in the avalanche of commentary following her death is that her 11 years in power was of great consequence to Britain – and the world.

Many commentators singled out her zealous commitment to free-market economics as her single most important contribution. But the lines between those who saw market deregulation and dismantling of industry as a positive or a negative were sharply drawn.

George Osborne, Britain's chancellor, wrote in The Times that Thatcher "restored Britain's optimism" and was "probably the greatest" peacetime prime minister and "we are fortunate to live in a country she did so much to transform".

Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, meanwhile, called her a "great reformer" who overturned "ruling assumptions about the relationship between the state and the market".

Over at The Independent, columnist Owen Jones described her policies as a "national catastrophe that still poisons us". He blamed her for Britain's current economic malaise, which he said, was set in motion by the financial deregulation she started, and that marks the "third great economic collapse since the Second World War: all three since Thatcherism launched its great crusade".

In The Guardian, Hugo Young, the late columnist and Thatcher biographer, in an obituary prepared just weeks before he died in 2003, lamented a "dark legacy" that "brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs".

Her "indifference to sensitivity and good sense", Young wrote, "fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success.

"Everything was justified as long as it made money - and this too is still with us."

But Thatcher should not be blamed for making Britons selfish, contended Ed West at The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper once known as the Daily Thatcher for its unflinching support of the policies of Britain's first female prime minister.

Instead, he argued, the fault lies with "your hippy parents", perfectly encapsulating another fault line over her legacy, one that on the one hand saw revellers take to the street across the UK on Monday night to celebrate her death with chants of the "witch is dead", as others gathered at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British prime minister, to pay their respects, light candles and lay flowers.

Beyond Britain, Thatcher also left a deep footprint. Argentines celebrated her passing, even as the issue of the tiny and distant Falkland Islands remains troublesome for the two countries who fought a war over them in 1983.

South Africa's government diplomatically noted the passing of a "formidable figure" even though Thatcher deemed the ruling African National Congress party a terrorist organisation, and Nelson Mandela a terrorist. But her opposition towards imposing sanctions on the apartheid government will never be forgotten there.

She pursued a belligerent policy towards Northern Ireland, where it is unlikely a peace process could ever have happened under her premiership, and supported military dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet and Indonesia's Suharto.

But her foreign policy legacy will probably be defined by her attempt to manoeuvre Britain into a role as a bridge between Europe and the United States.

Her unflinching support for the US in the foreign-policy arena often put her at odds with other European nations. Yet she recognised, perhaps more than the present breed of Conservative leaders, the significance of British involvement in the European Union.

British euro-scepticism, in large part inspired by Thatcher's own posture on Europe, however, may eventually undermine the very role Thatcher thought she might have carved out for a post-imperial Britain on the world stage.

Her death at 87 will now prompt a lengthy examination of her legacy.

"When they finally put you in the ground", Elvis Costello sang in 1989's Tramp the Dirt Down, one of the many pop artists of the time who took angry exception to Thatcher, "they will laugh and tramp the dirt down".

Some will. But the dust will take a long time to settle.


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