The Irony of Margaret Thatcher

Did I imagine it? I've trawled the Internet, and can find no mention of a visit she paid to the Imperial War Museum, where she gave a spellbinding talk about the Falkland Islands War. She described to us how she first heard the news that the Argentines had invaded the islands with thousands of troops -- and her reaction.

She reacted very much as a trained soldier might do. She wanted to know the facts, the estimates, and the brief opinions of her advisers. Then she made her decision -- that she would go to war. There was no mention, as far as I can recall, of the political or public consequences, in the short term or the long term.

There was only a modest gathering of invited guests at the IWM, and afterwards the Director, Michael Crawford, introduced me to the former Prime Minister. I told her I had written the official biography of Field Marshal Montgomery, the World War II commander, and that he would have been fascinated to hear her account. I was about to say that he had had a low opinion of politicians and their decision-making skills when Mrs. Thatcher interrupted me. For the next five minutes she continued her "lecture," passionately berating those who had criticized her, saying how little they understood of the time, the need for action, not delay -- especially those in the press... I did not get another word in.

Afterwards I found myself in a sort of shock. As a student I had stayed with Winston Churchill; later I had lunched with Harold Macmillan, in fact had met most of the post-war prime ministers of Great Britain from Douglas-Home to Tony Blair. When I'd told Mr. Blair I was a biographer, and had written the life of Field Marshal Montgomery, he had immediately looked at me with piercing blue eyes. "But I know you from somewhere else," he'd said. "I've been reading your JFK: Reckless Youth."

My ego had been flattered, and I had afterwards reflected Blair was naturally more interested in the life of a politician who had made himself the equivalent of a film star in terms of his public appeal. But Mrs. Thatcher hadn't been interested in who I was, or what I'd written, or might say -- indeed she'd made it clear she had nothing to learn from me, though there was plenty I might learn from her.

It must have been in 1999 or 2000.

Years later, after her death, I find myself remembering that encounter, and how much it epitomized for me Mrs. Thatcher's strength and weakness. She had no time for flim-flam, as Monty would have called it. She had a clear, decisive mind, and recognized how others looked for leadership from her, not procrastination. But her inability to listen would be her undoing -- especially when she went ahead and abolished real estate taxes in Britain, replacing them with a dreaded "poll tax," which people thought a give-away to the rich and a punishment of the poor. She never admitted her mistake, for she judged all reality by her convictions, not her common sense or concern for others, since she had no such concern. "People" only existed for her inasmuch as they bolstered her determination to do as she saw fit. She thus imprinted her ideological agenda on her quiescent cabinet, who were, or all became, rich men. She became a quasi-dictator, and was eventually deposed by her own party. But only after she had, in many people's view, wrecked the social fabric of her country by her passion for free market capitalism in making the rich richer: a domestic war she'd waged without quarter.

I confess I didn't like her. But "nice men don't win wars," as Monty's chief intelligence officer used to say -- and over 11 years Mrs. Thatcher won most of her wars. She didn't listen, because to have listened might have diminished her absolute conviction she was right, as well as her determination to change radically the way Britain did business, regardless of the social fall-out. In some ways I am reminded of another such quasi-dictator, who revolutionized his field of activity, journalism: Rupert Murdoch. Both of them saw British trade unions in the 1980s as the enemy, and were determined to smash them in the interests of profitability. To do so required enormous courage, tenacity and indifference to casualties.

In Mrs. Thatcher's case she took on the British miners' union, which she felt was holding the nation ransom by its threat of strikes. Under her predecessor, in fact, Britain had been forced to go on a three-day work week at one point. She had no interest in whether some men were dying of silicosis, or suffering poor conditions. She saw, instead, only men who booked long holidays in the Mediterranean and who cared not a fig for their country if they could get away with blackmail. She broke them, as she did the steelworkers -- and became hated by them.

Was she right to have done so? Could she have achieved her ends in a less divisive, combative way?

I doubt it. I grew up and lived in a Britain in which strikes and the threat of strikes had become part of the social fabric -- and it was not very nice. You never knew when the next one would come -- when the trains would run, or the London subway shut down, or airport workers bring travel to a halt. The news was always of one threat or another -- with Labour governments unable to deal with intransigent, self-centered, puffed-up union leaders any better than the Conservative governments. Strikes had become a sort of endless chain of blackmail, since every concession by the government or large employers simply increased the likelihood that other unions would follow suit. It was almost a game: a game in which union leaders got themselves the national attention they craved on the nightly news, and no-one knew how to put an end to it. This wasn't communism or Marx's vision of the proletariat, this was simply local anarchy becoming national anarchy. Industrial, commercial and service anarchy. And we all suffered. Especially my poor father.

His responsibility was to edit and produce the Times of London, and the Sunday Times -- which he had made into one of the world's leading newspapers by his leadership and journalistic innovation. (Harold Evans and William Rees-Mogg were his lieutenants.) But how produce those newspapers when the trade unions threatened to (and did) strike almost every day, and certainly every weekend?

It hurt my father especially. He came from the working class, had never been to college, and had commanded working class men in his northern England infantry battalion, as a young colonel, from D-Day to the conquest of Nazi Germany. It almost literally broke his heart that such brave men could now put themselves in the hands of union leaders who had not the least interest in the newspapers he was editing, and would do everything they could to weasel or win concessions by the blackmail of another strike -- while refusing to allow new technology in Fleet Street. When the Times company tried to lock them out unless firm, strike-free technology agreements were arrived at, they simply went and worked under assumed names for other newspapers that needed more hands to print more copies to make up for the Times shortfall. The one-year lockout failed. There seemed no way, in other words, to modernize print production in Britain -- just as there was no way to modernize the country. Luddite intransigence had bred a sense of hopelessness in the management of pretty much every industry or service in the entire nation. Everyone knew it, but no one knew how to deal with it: a now former empire without clothes. It was like a cancer -- indeed, when my father got fatal cancer he did, in fact, blame it on the men who had made his working life such a misery.

He didn't like Mrs. Thatcher, nor did he like Rupert Murdoch. But he did admire their guts in tackling a problem that seemed utterly insoluble in Britain in the 1980s: trade unionism gone mad.

Admittedly the fall-out was in some ways egregious. Mrs. Thatcher privatized as much nationalized industry as she could, sold off government-owned housing for the poor, then marked them for poll taxes wherever they lived -- or camped. She was going to make English men and women work again, responsibly -- and pay for public services. She ran rough-shod over all complaints or appeals for compassion -- but compassion was not in her vocabulary. She was resented -- but after 11 years she had in fact achieved what no other individual could have done. She had smashed trade union anarchy in Britain, forever.

Similarly, Rupert Murdoch smashed the print unions in Fleet Street. My father had had to deal with 56 different unions locals just to get out the Times and Sunday Times - 56! Every night was, literally, a nightmare as different union "representatives" blackmailed the company under the threat of strike -- till the company, owned by gentle Kenneth Thomson, a Canadian, finally threw in the towel and sold itself to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch pretended to be starting a new newspaper in Wapping, East London -- then did a secret deal with a single union, and moved the Times to the new location. There followed a year of stoning of the print trucks and other violence, but the print unions had been defeated. Murdoch won. New technology came in. The printers never worked again.

The moral was: in time of anarchy, tough leadership is the only solution -- even though the collateral damage may be heartbreaking. Mrs. Thatcher's strident, take-no prisoners' approach was in some ways repugnant, but it was surely necessary. British trade unionism, once a beacon to the world in terms of fighting for workers' down-trodden rights, had become the mockery of the world: synonymous with selfishness, anti-modernization, and bloody-mindedness to the point not only of national industrial suicide but the despair of anyone with an IQ over 100.

Mrs. Thatcher thus fought the British trade unions as she had fought the Argentines -- without mercy. Unfortunately she had less success in the peace that followed -- her dictatorial nature making her eventually unfit to run a post-union British society: something Tony Blair did rather well, until war, in turn, undid him.

Similarly, Rupert Murdoch did Britain an extraordinary service in putting an end to print union anarchy. Unfortunately his own dictatorial ways then proved his undoing in Britain -- resulting in the scandal over the News of the World, and the judgment that he was unfit to run a newspaper in a just and responsible society.

And so, thinking of Margaret Thatcher and that talk she gave at the turn of a new century -- for I'm sure I'm not imagining it -- I'm left with this: the recognition as an historian that certain men and women can be necessary to change history - -but that they rarely succeed once they've changed it.

Nigel Hamilton is the author of more than twenty works of history and biography. He is Senior Fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston, and lives in Somerville, MA, and New Orleans, LA. He has recently completed the first volume of his new study of Franklin D. Roosevelt, FDR at War. Subtitled The Mantle of Command, 1941-1942, it will be published by Houghton Mifflin early in 2014.