Hard News by Russell Brown



I wasn't in Britain for the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's reign as British Prime Minister, but I lived there through its inglorious end. It was glorious.

I can't think of single politician in a Western democracy who prepared such a rich bed for schadenfreude as Thatcher did. As the Wikipedia article on the leadership challenge that ended it all notes, she was so utterly caught up in her own myth that she simply could not conceive of the reality that she had alienated not only a majority of the electorate (not new in itself -- her ability to win elections while being demonstrably unpopular was remarkable) but of her own colleagues in government.

On the evening of November 12, she gave a speech in which she referred dismissively to the brewing rebellion in her ranks:

I am still at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late. And in case anyone doubted it, can I assure you there will be no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time. The bowling's going to get hit all round the ground. That is my style.

And the next day, in Parliament, her Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, gave a stunning, unexpected resignation speech that addressed her cricketing metaphor head-on:

It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

I happened to be watching Parliament on TV that day. And nine days later, when she withdrew her candidacy ahead of the second round of a leadership election, the BBC and ITV both went to rolling news -- it was like the death of a dictator -- and I rode down to Oddbins, fetched a couple of bottles of cheap bubbly and settled in for a good, hard gloat. We all did.

It's hard to say whether Thatcher's preposterous sense of self-belief was always in her, or whether it developed in the cultish atmosphere of the early British monetarists with whom she rose to power. But it was the key to her success and her failure. By the time she was finally obliged to remove herself from office, she was, I think, mentally unbalanced.

The Thatcherite event that most affected my trade -- Murdoch's defeat of the print unions at Wapping -- was a brutal, bloody, battle. It also allowed newspapers to move on from the mid-century technological and structural stasis in which the unions seemed determined to keep them. In other countries, New Zealand included, the move to a new era of production was achieved pragmatically and peacefully. In Britain, it took a war -- and that wasn't entirely Thatcher's fault.

There are other, similar examples. Not every change she wrought was a bad one. Yet Thatcher should be recalled as a leader who could barely achieve anything without going to war -- or, more correctly, without declaring, and seeking to destroy, an enemy. Never mind that the enemy was us. And in the end, that is no sort of leader at all. I have never again experienced the bleak, pervasive sense of alienation she fostered in government. And I would not wish to.

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