If we measure greatness by the amount of change a person makes or leads, if we measure greatness by ability to both get to the top of an important hierarchy and remain there, if we measure greatness by the depth of motivation to serve people for the greater good (and not for fame, wealth or popularity), and if we measure greatness by the years into the future during which a person will be remembered while lesser achievers and attainers will be forgotten, then only two women in the twentieth century merit the possibility of the title 'the greatest'. Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher, who has died overnight.
I was in Britain in 1990 when she was toppled from her role as Prime Minister. It was an eye-opener for me as a Kiwi (used to the news only being viewed at 6 pm) to find the TV cameras planted and rolling outside 10 Downing St for days on end. There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Thatcher made a huge mistake or two which precipitated rebellion in her own ranks, particularly her unyielding promotion of the 'poll tax'. Her assertion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families, will not go down as her finest hour, for she was plain wrong on that. But no political leader has been unerring in their judgement of what the right thing to do is. Margaret Thatcher's greatness is not an assessment of her perfection but a tribute to what she did get right. She did indeed get some things right because she was elected or re-elected to power in three general elections and held the office of Prime Minister longer than anyone else in the twentieth century.
Of course for many years many have affected to despise and to dismiss her, using the name 'Thatcher' or the epithet 'Thatcherism' as a term of contempt. (Let's remember that as the hankies come out over the next few days). But do the despisers remember what Britain was like in the 1970s? It went from one crisis to another and seemed perpetually on the brink of a permanent general strike as the 'sick man' of Europe. Margaret Thatcher stopped the rot and turned Britain around. Her party (we should remember) won the election after she was toppled, and the Labour governments under Blair and Brown which succeeded her successor, John Major, continued many of her policies. Indeed to this day, as one instance, still Britain has not joined the single European currency.
Christians should remember Margaret Thatcher as a Christian politician who served the people she loved with a deeply Christian motivation. (See Cranmer). I do not think that even the severest critics of her could say that she sought high office for fame or fortune, and, as far as I can tell, she has not after 1990 made the kind of money on the speaking circuit or publishing lark that some of her contemporaries have been so adroit at doing.
Yes, her critics will remind us of all the people hurt by the change she introduced. Where I lived in the north-east of England traditional industries such as mining had been dealt to. But the same changes introduced possibilities and opportunities for new industries in keeping with the late twentieth century, even in the north-east, where car manufacturing offered one lead out of the mire.
Her chief contribution as a Christian politician, I suggest, was her affirmation of individuals, her support for human flourishing through opportunity for choice, and her commitment to enable wealth for all by ensuring that wealth was created which could then be shared, in contrast to the Britain she inherited in which diminishing wealth was being redistributed via ever thinner slices of the cake. As she once brilliantly said,
“The trouble with socialists is that they always run out of other people’s money.”
Here, via Damian Thatcher (go there for other links), is footage of one of her finest occasions in the British parliament. In her last appearance as Prime Minister, when she knew the knives were out and her back was not covered, she confidently and cheerfully takes on all that the Opposition can throw at her. Absolutely fascinating are the insights she shares about the situation of Britain in respect of Europe. Enduring insights. The world, especially Europe could do with her 21st century equivalent right now.
To this day she remains the only woman to have led either of the great political parties of Great Britain and it is difficult to see that claim being trumped anytime soon.