Unquestionably the death on Monday of Baroness Thatcher has monopolised the headlines all week. She was exceptional in many ways.
She is the only female Prime Minister we have had. She held that office for 11 years, longer than anyone except Sir Robert Walpole who lasted almost 21 years (1721-42). The daughter of a Grantham grocer, she broke through the glass ceiling to lead her party and dominate British politics for a generation. Tony Blair acknowledged this suggesting “Margaret Thatcher was one of the very few leaders in the world who changed the political landscape not only in their own country, but in the rest of the world”. When Argentina invaded the Falklands, she despatched troops to drive them out. She did the same when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. She recognised Mr Gorbachev as "someone we can do business with" and helped to bring down the communist regime in the USSR.
Lady Thatcher was not without critics. When Parliament was recalled on Wednesday 150 Labour MPs (60%) stayed away. One said “I’d rather be put in a torture chamber”. The poll tax, the miners’ strike, legislation to require trade unions to hold ballots before striking and the impact on local communities of mine closures, especially in South Wales, lie behind such responses. Ed Miliband acknowledged this in his respectful speech and added the stigmatisation of gay and lesbian people by measures such as Section 28 and her wrong judgment about Nelson Mandela as other mistakes. Even in her own party, she alienated those she called ‘wet’. Indeed she was not a Conservative in the historic mould and her economic policies placed her closer to the Gladstonian liberal tradition, as she once admitted.
Reactions to Baroness Thatcher’s death have been surprising. Parliament is usually only recalled for matters of national crisis, wars, terrorist attacks and the 2011 riots. Not since Churchill’s death has Parliament been recalled to pay tribute to a former Prime Minister. Was Parliament hijacked for ‘narrow political gain’ as one former Labour Minister suggested? Nor has the press given so much space to praising a politician. Even more shocking have been the counter-demonstrations vilifying Lady Thatcher. How do we appraise her legacy?
Her friends have said Margaret Thatcher was a Christian, a Methodist in her youth and a regular member of the congregation at the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in later life but she did not wear her faith on her sleeve. Her policies met with opposition from Anglican Bishops and her famous address to the Church of Scotland General Assembly included a curious exposition of 2 Thessalonians 3:10 but political commentator Mark Fox maintains that “you cannot understand Thatcher without understanding her Christian faith”.
Churchill once said there are some politicians who “make the weather” and David Cameron thinks she was one of them. Ed Miliband remembers her as someone “who defined her age”. Others are less respectful but history will decide the significance of Margaret Thatcher. May she rest in peace.