I strolled through Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London, England, during the height of Margaret Thatcher’s popularity in Britain. At the time, she had unleashed the dogs of war and the nation was intent upon freeing the Falkland Islands from the nasty Argentinian invaders. Speakers Corner on a Sunday afternoon is a good place to gauge the mood of the British people, but only to a certain degree, as many of those given a soapbox to express their views can be termed as being on the far side of “barmy.”
In one case, I observed a speaker clad in a sack adorned with a toilet paper roll and other paraphernalia. Of course, with so many attempting to get their views across to the throng gathered in the park, it takes some effort to attract attention.
He talked of the American and Soviet Union domination of the world and how the two super powers were wrecking it, as well as the need for Canada, New Zealand and Australian to join with Britain and create a better world. I was tempted to remind him that the British Empire had ended decades earlier and that the four countries were already joined into something called the Commonwealth of Nations. Hardly a powerful earth-reshaping organization, but one that had been a forum for former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to champion the cause against then apartheid South Africa.
Incidentally, Thatcher was singularly opposed to Mulroney’s efforts to end apartheid, not because of a racist streak, but for economic reasons. As it turned out, she was on the wrong side of history.
In 1982 when I visited Speakers corner, the majority of the soapbox orators were in favour of the “Iron Lady’s” war, while a handful decried the sending of a taskforce to reclaim the island for Britain, saying the Argentinians were their brothers and had simply invaded to reclaim what was originally their territory.
Others merely wanted to ignore the war and tell how they would address the problems at home.
If anything, the Falklands War is what many most remember about Thatcher since her passing on April 8 at age 87.
At Speakers Corner, with the exception of the Marxists who existed in a world of their own imagination, opinions pro and con the war and Thatcher were divided almostly equally — there appeared to be no middle ground. The people either loved her or they hated her.
The Falklands War gained at lot of media attention in Britain. The most vivid image was of cheering crowds waving at the troop ships as they headed to the far reaches of the North Atlantic to fight in what U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig described as “a Gilbert and Sullivan battle over a sheep pasture between a choleric old John Bull and a comic opera dictator in a gaudy uniform.”
If Thatcher had thought victory would be translated into international respect, she was far off the mark. For my part, I declined to express any commitment when asked by Londoners, since I was a guest in their country and didn’t really want to get too deeply involved. I was merely echoing the stand taken by the Canadian government at the time. On the other hand, my more bellicose travelling mate would always answer in the same way,” If you limeys had any sense, you’d ask the Canadian government to send in the Van Doos to clean up the mess.” He seemed to regard the Quebec-based regiment as the best fighting force in the whole wide world, and capable of cleaning up any tensions wherever they arose.
But for all of Thatcher’s jingoism, she failed to resurrect the old empire — its day had come and gone. In this respect, the world had passed her by.
Thatcher had an ability to antagonize whole groups of people. In the north, I heard from bitter men who had lost their jobs when Thatcher closed government-run coal mines after a long and bitter strike. The thousands of miners out of a job were definitely not counted among her champions. Nor were those who had been employed in the utility or other government-run companies that she privatized.
But there were those that loved her for her firmness in dealing with the miners that they believed were holding the nation hostage with their prolonged strike actions. It can be said about Thatcher that when she was forced out as leader of the Conservative Party, as the prime minister, she had dramatically changed Britain. Whether for good or bad, it depends on what side of the fence one sits.
She was an advocate of freeing up the economy in favour of capitalism by lowering taxes and cutting regulations. It was a policy adopted by her good pal and ideological comrade, U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The former actor and former grocer’s daughter were in lock-step on many policies, although Thatcher was probably the more ideological of the two. They abhored the Soviets and communism and wanted to promote a world that left the private sector unfettered. It was the era when Gordon Gecko could shout out in the movie Wall Street that, “Greed is good,”and not an eyebrow would bat. Instead, the audience would cheer, anticipating that they could also dream of trading in junk bonds and make oodles of money.
While their ideas of trickle-down economics and large-scale deregulation as promoted by Thatcher and Reagan have been widely disproven — think about the collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008 and the present economic crisis in Europe — the reasoning behind freer trade is an easier sell. Canada has benefited greatly from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But thankfully, Canadian prime ministers and their finance ministers were more cautious when it came to deregulating the banking system. With restraints in place, Canadian banks have been significantly more solvent than those in the U.S. and Europe, including Great Britain, where the Royal Bank of Scotland was on the verge of collapse in 2008 and had to be bailed out by the British government.
For a short period of time, Thatcherism seemed to be working as London became the major world financial centre. It still is a powerful entity, but its clout has been tempered by the other instruments of Thatcher’s policies which have brought the British government to its knees with deepening debt and a massive budget deficit — the same problem plaguing the U.S. government and many other nations who bought into Thatcher’s financial schemes.
Thatcher did actively engage and encourage reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev — more so than Reagan — which contributed to lessening tensions with Russia and helped to end the Soviet regime.
During her period as prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990, Thatcherism reigned as the all-pervasive doctrine exported to the rest of the world. But time has decreased its influence, and a new generation has mostly forgotten the “Iron Lady” who was once the main topic of orators at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park.