How Europe Sent Off Thatcher


Does the death of Margaret Thatcher also signal the death throes of Thatcherism?

Thatcher conservatives are still in charge in London. The Iron Lady’s political sons, David Cameron and George Osborne, have praised Thatcher to the heavens this week. The Labour Party, tamed during Britain’s social war of the 1980s, has been unable to articulate a throughgoing alternative to Thatcher’s policies. Even today.

But on the Continent the variant of neo-liberalism favoured in Washington and London was always received cautiously — even in the 1990s and 2000s, years of exuberant financial markets and surging credit.

That epoch ended with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Since then, supporters of the new neo-liberal settlement have tanked at the polls across Europe — from Germany’s Free Democrats to Greece’s PASOK. Accordingly, many champions of Thatcher’s legacy in Europe came to bury the leader as well as praise her last week.

Today Margaret Thatcher’s bête noire, big government, is back, writes conservative German business daily Handlesblatt in a reappraisal of the “era of the unleashing of markets”.

On the one hand, the paper reiterates many of the arguments made by Thatcher’s supporters in Anglophone nations. When Thatcher took power, the West “languished in an identity crisis”. Our problem back then, according to the daily: “Too much welfare, too little entrepreneurial spirit.”

Thatcher’s Revolution changed all that, Handelsblatt says. The Iron Lady’s economic ideas — deregulation, privatisation, anti-unionism and tight monetary policy — “shaped the economic policies of Western governments for three decades”.

On the other hand, Handelsblatt concedes, Thatcher’s policies had sometimes “fatal consequences”. “Her fight against inflation [through spending cuts and higher interest rates]led to proper mass unemployment, for a while."

“Her bold deregulation of the financial markets created the conditions for the London casino, the City, that later helped to trigger the financial crisis”. Indeed, Thatcher’s “true heritage” was the prevalence of the banking sector in today’s United Kingdom and the destruction of British manufacturers, agrees Italian financial daily Il Sole 24 Hore. “[This] was a strategic choice but one that led to increased unemployment at the time and a loss of international prestige,” a blogger at the paper says.

Thatcher’s choice has not proven a success for Britain, opines Il Sole: “Now that the economic crisis has slowed the financial industry’s growth, the [real]benefits has become clear. This is Thatcher’s weighty legacy.”

Further on the Right, some papers in Europe have backed Thatcher’s economic potion. From Madrid, rightist La Razon believes Thatcher’s ideas offer a panacea to cure today’s crisis-sick Spain. “At the end of the 1970s, Britain was a country in decline, crippled by unemployment, inflation and [its]deficit,” a columnist writes. “The situation was so bad that in 1976, the Labour government of the era had to take out the biggest loan that the IMF had ever issued at that point in time. Sound familiar? It does to me.”

In Eastern Europe the Baroness’ economic ideas served as a template for post-communist free-marketers, reports the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “The reforms that Leszek Balcerowicz in Poland, Vacláv Klaus in the Czech Republic and and Mart Laar in Estonia set to work on were significantly influenced by the ‘Conservative Revolution’ that [Thatcher] began in the 1980s”.

“From the perspective of the free market reformers, the difference between the Soviet variety of socialism and an over-regulated, stagnant Britain of the 1970s — with its almost omnipotent unions and its bloated public sector — was one of degree and not an essential difference,” the conservative daily’s Eastern Europe correspondent says.

Still, almost all of the European media noted the social downside to Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution.

Thatcher’s decision to junk manufacturing and vaunt finance destroyed the livelihoods of people in the English regions, argues centrist French weekly L’Express.

“In 11 years, the ‘heartless liberalism’ of Margaret Thatcher produced a two-track society, with its cohort of the marginalised, the unemployed and disability pensioners,” the magazine reports. “The gap between rich and poor in 1990 was as large as the gap in the 1930s.”

Indeed, Thatcher’s promise that by cutting income taxes for the rich, wealth would “trickle down” to the poor, turned out not be true, says centre-left French daily Le Monde.

Instead, Thatcher’s economic changes left behind a real unemployment rate that is higher than that of France, argues the Parisian afternoon daily. Though this is masked by British unemployment statistics, because under Thatcher many unemployed people were put on disability pensions.

“The rich have become richer and the poor poorer,” Le Monde writes. “So much so that there’s now a flourishing body of writing – reminiscent of Victorian times — that tries to discredit the poor who are held responsible for their lot. Due to their lack of energy, their entitlement mentality.”

But Thatcher did leave behind some winners, notes Greek daily Kathimerini’s English edition.

“[Thatcher’s] unprecedented privatisation drive spawned a new industry of stockbrokers, investment bankers, lawyers and PR executives who were able to strike it rich as inequality grew.” Meanwhile, “the emasculation of unionism in order to create a flexible labour market left communities with an emptiness that would never be filled.”

Outside Europe, few were as touched by Margaret Thatcher as Argentina. Her 1982 war over the Falkland Islands left hundreds dead and won her a second term in office. It also gained her the everlasting enmity of Argentinians. The country’s newspapers gave Thatcher a pointed send-off last week.

“The ‘Iron Lady' was a celebrated instrument of torture in England — at least in long gone times,” an obituary in Buenos Aires daily Clarin noted. “It was a cabinet with sharp spikes at its back and a lid with sharp spikes, which slowly closed on the prisoner until he saw the light. Or not.”

“Thatcher was proud of the nickname,” Clarin says.

ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories. 

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