Margaret Thatcher leaves polarizing legacy

 In this June 23, 1982 file photo, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher answers a reporters question during a news conference at the United Nations.

Associated Press

In this June 23, 1982 file photo, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher answers a reporters question during a news conference at the United Nations.

Since Margaret Thatcher's death last week, you've no doubt heard how great she was.

"Great lady," is the specific phrase favored by my English father-in-law, High Point resident Bernard Booth.

My wife, Laura, on the other hand, remembers Thatcher from even before she was prime minister, and that as a cabinet member in the early 1970s she helped cut the free milk allotment for some schoolchildren.

"Milk-snatcher Thatcher," my wife likes to call her.

Polarizing. Splitting a nation by class and generation. I'm sure you've heard about that, too.

I didn't have to hear.

I married into an English family. I've witnessed the Thatcher fault line open up repeatedly over Friday night curry dinners for 20 years.

Let's start with the first big splash Thatcher made in the world press, the invasion of the Falkland Islands.

Bernard showed me his carefully preserved June 15, 1982, edition of the conservative tabloid, the Daily Express, which announced the war's end. Its front page is mostly covered by a portrait of Thatcher framed in a large "V'' for victory.

"It was a wonderful operation, the distance involved and how quickly it was all put together," Bernard said. "It was a great boost for the nation. … If Labour had been in power, we would have lost the Falklands."

My wife's reaction? So what?

The Falklands was an insignificant blob of land in the south Atlantic that no one had heard of or cared about. The war needlessly cost the lives of hundreds of British and Argentinian soldiers. It was "imperialism … Margaret Thatcher's grandstanding. We thought it was crazy," said my wife, who is 51.

In the early 1980s, she was a college student and community education worker who protested against the Thatcher-approved expansion of U.S. military bases in England. She was part of an anti-Thatcher youth culture — joined by such artists as Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg — that gained energy as Thatcher destroyed the traditional culture of labor.

Trades in England were identities, ones that workers adopted as teenage apprentices. Towns and neighborhoods were organized around unions and workingman's clubs.

Laura remembers police escorting scabs to break strikes and wading through picket lines on horseback, bloodying workers with their batons.

"Thatcher took the rug from under the feet of entire communities," she said.

My father-in-law, 84, was a middle-age businessman in the 1980s, and from his point of view unions were "ruining — ruining! — the country."

"Of course the coal miners always struck in winter. And their leader, (Arthur) Scargill, was an out-and-out Communist," he said.

While on a sales call to the working-class stronghold of Newcastle, Bernard watched union picketers pelt passing cars with oranges and apples, he said, "anything of size and a bit hard."

Among the workers striking in sympathy with the miners were grave diggers, he said, "so you even had dead bodies piling up."

By shutting down unprofitable mines, by protecting nonunion workers, Thatcher "sorted out" labor leaders and sent the message that they couldn't hold the country hostage.

"She did a great job, and don't let Laura tell you otherwise," Bernard said, though he did concede that Thatcher "was rough on the miners. Some of the those families were near starvation."

My wife is no longer a Doc Martens-wearing firebrand. As a business owner, she can see that some of the union demands were unreasonable.

But she's not going to forget the bloodied miners and the milk-deprived children. And I'm quite sure she'll never call Margaret Thatcher "great."

Margaret Thatcher leaves polarizing legacy 04/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 9:12pm]

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