No British figure will emerge in our lifttimes with the capacity to polarize debate quite like Margaret Thatcher. By forcing future Labour governments to embrace the market rather than the state as the central organizing locus of all productive and cultural life in Britain, Thatcher effectively ended tradition-left vs. right ideological debate domestically; indeed, she ended the Labour Party’s socialist project altogether.
As divisive and significant as Thatcher was and remains, this was a Prime Minister who never secured much more than a third of British voters’ ballots. That she managed to rule for over a decade atop a government system unchecked by anything remotely resembling an independent or effective legislative branch is a devastating indictment of Britain’s First Past The Post, Winner Takes all Parliamentary system.
The radical, irreversible and transformative legacy of her deregulation and privitization governing agenda and the capacity of her office to force it through is almost universally depicted, by friend and foe, as a reflection of her personal charisma. Not so. If anything, Thatcher was Regan without the charm. (And where he was reelected in a landslide near clean sweep of US states, the “Iron Lady’s” 1983 re-election actually saw the Tories total vote drop by almost 700,000.)
With the emergence of New Labour and the very public axing of Clause Four, Thatcher’s complete ideological victory in her homeland was confirmed. Yet this was a lady who, far from speaking for the masses, generally took a perverse and public pride in confirming her loathing for large swathes of their most vocal and independant representatives – with one cynical exception: the police. Cops were the one section of the working class for whom she was determined to provide both cover and comfort in return for their unflinching imposition of her agenda over (and onto) the heads of neighbours and relatives.
In an era when the intransigence and obstructionism of the current US Congress is routinely derided as a blight on the US political landscape, Thatcher’s legacy is a cautionary tale. This relatively unpopular leader nonetheless managed to take the spoils in three consecutive General Elections. In the face of militant opposition she nonetheless combined legal authority with a firece personal determination to impose a radical top-down remaking of Britain’s public and private life while recasting the very terms of debate (some conservative).
Today and for the next week much coverage and debate will pivot around Thatcher, the person. This obscures the real debate. While Britain muddles on without the safeguard of written constitution and forever at the mercy of its preposterous First Past the Post Parliamentary system, unpopular leaders with radical agendas lay in wait.
As Scotland considers whether or not to re-emerge from the shadow of an increasingly fractured and directionless United Kingdom, Scots could do worse than consider the opportunity to live in a country where the capacity of unpopular, unknown and unwelcome leaders to impose permanent changes on their lives is restricted by a constitution written by and for themselves.