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The complex Margaret Thatcher

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 12 April 2013

Baroness Thatcher has died at 88, in her last few years suffering dementia. I thought the film about her was both beautifully done and moving, and that Meryl Streep's portrayal of her has no equal that I have seen in cinema. It seems to be agreed that she was about as equally loathed as she was adored. The pictures of people revelling in the streets at the news of her death I found rather awful, though while she was PM I found her rather grim (from a distance only - I never met her, nor even saw her in person).

There are quite a few who blame her for some at least of the Anthropogenic Global Warming fuss. It is undoubtedly true that she made a series of speeches in 1988 and afterwards about the urgent need for international action to combat warming. She was also one of the prime movers in the establishment of the Hadley Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, later famous as the source of the 'Climategate' emails. Why did she do it? There are three accounts.

In the first she is seen as someone who had broken the coal-miner's strike in 1984/5 and wanted Britain to be free of dependence on coal, and of the power of the mining union. In the second, she is seen as a scientist who could see the logic of the AGW argument, and as a politician was able to speak to audiences (including the Royal Society, where she gave her first major speech on this subject) with the authority of a scientist. In the third, she is a statesman who thought that Britain's security depended on energy security, and believed that nuclear power could provide that security. Coal was so 19th century…


The first is straightforward, though a bit wanting in oomph, since the power of the union was already broken by 1988. As to the second, one has to recognise that in her later autobiographical work, Statecraft, she rather put the boot into the the orthodox: 'The doomsters' favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong. Second, we all have ideas about the weather: traditionally, the English on first acquaintance talk of little else. Third, since clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale, it provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.'

The third theory is plausible, but no more than that. Perhaps in practice there was a mixture of all three. Good politicians are not afraid to change their minds and their views, and she was an extraordinarily successful politician for a long time.

From a different corner altogether comes a view of her as a pragmatic leader in the field of public health.According to Alex Wodak, of Australia21, Mrs Thatcher accepted the recommendtion of an expert committee to set up a national needle exchange program 'to slow the spread of HIV among and from people who inject drugs'. Wodak continues: 'Many assume that pragmatic drug policies are generally a product of left-wing political parties and governments. This is not so. The experience of Mrs Thatcher in establishing a needle exchange programme in the UK in 1986 and President Nixon in establishing a national methadone treatment programme in the USA in 1969 are examples of conservative politicians adopting pragmatic drug policies. Both were excellent decisions though still often criticised.'

I wrote recently (but can't now find where) that Mrs Thatcher had displayed an eye-opening indifference to the world we live in when she had stated, confidently, that 'there is no such thing as society'. Through a fine piece in Skeptic Lawyer (see my Blogroll) I have found the original statement, part of an interview she gave to Woman's Own in September 1987, where she said: 'If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people, and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves, and each of us prepared to turn round and help, by our own efforts, those who are unfortunate.'

As Skeptic Lawyer says, if you read the whole passage carefully (I've only given the snippet that contains the famous phrase) you get more sense of the context. She is really complaining about the 'entitlement' problem that Idid also write about, and here I am on her side. Here is another, earlier part of the interview: 'I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" [or] "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society - and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.'

If you put the two bits together I have extracted you do get a sense of a social program. Maybe it's tough love, but I have some sympathy for it - and for her. Seeing the film certainly helped.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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