Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Iron Lady - Canadian Reflections

News of Thatcher's death was a shock. She had been ailing for years but I had never really considered her death as a possibility. It's like when Christopher Hitchens died: I knew he had terminal throat cancer but I never processed that he would cease to exist. On the morning of her passing, I received 2 texts, an email AND a phone call to see what my thoughts were. No, I am not connected to Maggie T at all but my research in the past 4-5 years has made her a part of my life in a way that's unlike most people.

I first learned of Thatcher in the 10th grade ... in a Canadian History class. I don't remember how it happened but I was allowed to study her for a independent project. As a young feisty Feminist in the making, I gravitated to this label that the media has been brandishing about for the past couple of days: first woman Prime Minister. She stood as a beacon of possibility amidst a world dominated by grumpy privileged men. (Note: My feminism at this point was of the Spice Girl "Girl Power!!!" wave) Of course, I didn't fully understand Thatcher's legacy as British Prime Minister in my teens. I had yet to become politically aware and neither had I developed my historian super powers (heightened ability to grumble and analyse the past). High school history class, despite an excellent teacher, consisted of
cookie-cutter narrative histories on the forging of "Canadian identity" at Vimy Ridge. So, I glossed over the Poll Tax and somewhat understood that she wasn't well looked upon by miners. I didn't quite get how this well-coiffed lady/"grocer's daughter" could be so hated?

My post-secondary education, at Southern Ontario's bastion of left-wing intellectuals, opened my mind. Thatcher, for all of her conviction politics and tailored blue power suits, was ruthless. She increased inequality in the UK unseen since before the First World War. She was unapologetic about dismantling the Welfare State. She destroyed consensus and made politics in Britain as ideologically divisive as it has ever been.  And, for all those, who seek to re-write her as a feminist icon: she wasn't. Stop wasting your time. There are notable feminist icons from her period in politics that deserve far more attention (*ahem* Barbara Castle!) Thatcher was not a "great" Prime Minister either in the model of Winston Churchill or Clement Atlee but she did leave a mark. I'm not as sure as Stephen Harper though that she will be talked about (in such glowing tones) "hundreds of years from now."

It's a bit strange to me now to watch the world media cover her death. The efforts to be overly-respectful and diplomatic are wholly inadequate.  The closest thing to a fair appraisal so far can be found in this Guardian video obituary. David Cameron's efforts to distract the public/ critics from his austerity politics by stating, that she not only led Britain but "SAVED" Britain (*eye roll*) will have the opposite of his intended aim. I don't think Canadians much care about Thatcher (unlike Americans) because our own Conservative PM from the period never had a "special relationship" with the Iron Lady. This Canadian, however, will mark this historical moment ... and perhaps take advantage of this opportunity to work on and submit that article on Maggie's years as a young politician that has been collecting dust on her desk!!


My friend is certainly much more qualified to discuss the historical import of Baroness Thatcher, Thatcherism, and how she fits into the twentieth-century landscape of British politics than yours truly. For unknown reasons I have never really thought much about Thatcher, it must be said (perhaps because, as suggested, Canadians haven't tended to think about her much) -- either in a positive or negative sense. I haven't the excuse of not having been exposed to seeing Margaret Thatcher in the media as a child, as I made frequent trips to London in the 1980s and remember seeing the riots over the Poll Tax on the telly. Youngster as I was, I did know that such a turn of events did not look good and signalled a highly divided nation. Yet, still, as something of an Edwardian I have seemingly blocked much consideration of Thatcherism out of my mind, pretending that the world still lay along some sort of predictable nineteenth-century lines.

Having said that, I was shocked to see the vehement reaction of many British people to her death. I am, again, ill-qualified to comment on the reasons for this dislike, but the Edwardian soul is nevertheless a bit discombobulated by it all. I would remark that (seeing as this blog comments on the differences between British and Canadian cultural forms) such displays seem almost impossible in Canada. We have commented earlier on the relatively innocuous content of Canadian political commentary or comedy in comparison with the UK. There is, admittedly, a much lower level of spite and vitriol. For better or worse, it makes us a different type of nation, and it is interesting to note how the British example differs. 


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