Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's rose-tinted American legacy

The American media’s reverential depiction of Margaret Thatcher this week says much about how the US and UK differ when looking at history.

As I’ve watched the international media coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher over the past few days, I’ve almost felt like we're talking about different women.

In America, the wall-to-wall coverage – quite unusual for a foreign leader – has been downright worshipful. This tone has been matched by politicians on both sides of the aisle. "The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” declared Barack Obama on Monday. “She helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best."

Here in continental Western Europe, where Thatcher was far less popular, the coverage couldn’t be more different. One French politician remarked that Thatcher will see the miners she put out of work in hell, while German MP Michael Roth declared "her radical market policies and her Europe-sceptical politics will certainly not be missed.”

In the UK the coverage has been more nuanced. As people say, she was a bit like Marmite – you either loved her or you hated her. The political persuasions of British papers has determined which side they’ve chosen to emphasise. But no media outlet has ignored the fact that she split opinions. Even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement to the Parliament on Monday acknowledged this.

She was an enormously important figure in British history and fundamentally changed the direction of the country, but the way in which she did so is still very controversial in the UK. Her tenure as prime minister is remembered largely for the pervasive riots her restructuring of the economy caused, and the major upheaval which decimated the British manufacturing sector.

Even children were taught to fear her when she was branded “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” after ending free school milk. Many on the Left hated her so much that they vowed to celebrate the day she died by holding parties. Some of these parties turned violent on Monday night in Glasgow, London and Liverpool.

Reagan’s proxy

What’s been astonishing about the American coverage of Thatcher’s death is that it’s ignored this other side of her completely. Based on US coverage you would think that Thatcher was a universally beloved matriarchal figure who is mainly remembered for breaking down barriers for women and ending the cold war.

The coverage is remarkably similar to what we saw when Ronald Reagan died in 2004. Reagan was also a very divisive figure in his time, but you wouldn’t have known any of that from the worshipful coverage of his funeral. Completely absent was any discussion of the scandals of his presidency and the wider effects on the economy.  

Ronald Reagan was almost impeached over the Iran Contra scandal, in which 14 of his closest officials were indicted for selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund a militia in Nicaragua. His invasion of the small Caribbean island of Grenada was another disastrous foreign policy blunder – and his arming of Saddam Hussein was ill-advised in hindsight, to say the least.

Like his ideological ally Thatcher in the UK, Reagan presided over economic policies that led to a massive widening of the gap between rich and poor. He put in place massive tax cuts for the wealthy without funding any new source of revenue. He tripled the national deficit and greatly increased the national debt, something largely lost on modern conservatives who praise him as a fiscal hawk. His arms race with the Soviet Union could have as easily resulted in World War III as in ending the cold war (luckily for him and us it was the latter). He also launched the ‘war on drugs’ which has led to the United States being the largest jailor in the world.

If you really stopped and asked people on the street what they thought about any of these policies, without mentioning they came from Ronald Reagan, they probably wouldn’t bee too excited about them. But all of this has been erased from the Reagan legacy. Republicans fall over themselves to mention his name as many times as they can, and even Democrats now routinely praise The Gipper. We have airports, stadiums and public schools named after him.

I don’t think you’ll be seeing a ‘Margaret Thatcher International Airport” any time soon. Though she and Reagan were contemporaries and are closely associated with one another, it is clear that the way their respective countries view their legacies differs greatly. Surely, the reason for the glowing, non-probing retrospectives of Thatcher in American media this week is because she is being lit by the residual rays of the Reagan halo.

Of course, Reagan had far more personal likability than Thatcher. He was the kindly grandfather who could sell you poison with a disarming smile. Thatcher was the stern headmistress who didn’t bother to couch her attacks in a warm demeanour. Though they were selling the same policies, Thatcher’s demeanour seemed to more closely match her policies.

But while the personality differences may explain some of the difference in coverage, I think it also says something about the American character. In my experience, there is a need in the United States to create heroes and myths, and to look at history in a far more simplistic way. This need does not exist to the same degree in the UK. Perhaps it’s just easier to sell a false narrative in the US than in the UK because of people’s need for these motivating stories.

British Conservatives have not been successful in creating an alternative history where Thatcher was loved by everyone. In fact, I don’t think they ever really tried. Because to ignore how divisive a figure she was would be absurd.

But American conservatives were wildly successful in erasing all memory of Reagan’s divisiveness, in just a decade. I’d say it’s to Britain’s credit that this week has seen thoughtful, nuanced coverage of the Thatcher legacy, rather than the whitewashed American variety.

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