COLUMN: Thatcher, and speaking ill of the dead

NOTES ON THE NEWS: The waiter in the 5-star restaurant hovered over Margaret Thatcher as she studied the menu. The occasion was a celebratory dinner with members of her Cabinet and other Tory party luminaries.

“What about the vegetables?” asked the waiter, with due deference.

“Oh, they’ll have the same as me”, replied the British prime minister, airily.

The story, surely apocryphal, but apparently not, says much about the former British leader, who died last week. She had both a mocking sense of humour, and often was contemptuous of some of her colleagues. And showed it. In fact Thatcher’s disdain for those she regarded as “wets” made Julia Gillard’s contempt for Kevin Rudd and his pals look mild, by comparison.

It’s not that long ago, in polite society, that it was considered rather bad form to speak ill of the dead. Scanning the hundreds of obituaries and other comments on Thatcher’s passing, it is clear they were a very mixed bag. Some of the commentary would never have been written after the passing of Robert Menzies, the disappearance of Harold Holt, or the death of William McMahon – despite their obvious flaws. McMahon was remembered as “Tiberius on the telephone”, a phrase coined by Gough Whitlam, which was hardly critical.

And when Sir Frank Packer, then owner of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, broke the convention with a screaming black headline “Stalin Dead, Hooray”, upon the death of the Soviet dictator, it was considered to be very poor taste.

There have been many criticisms of Thatcher published, as well as eulogies, but I don’t think we mind that. Glenda Jackson can have her spat in the House of Commons, and we can form our own views of Glenda Jackson, just as we might wonder about the “Thatcher as my hero” tribute of Alexander Downer in The Australian.

But bias is another matter. I have often thought complaints of bias against the ABC are over-egged, but when I heard the coverage of Thatcher’s death at the top of the hour on ABC radio’s Breakfast last Tuesday I was shocked. (And it takes a lot to shock me.)

The first quarter of an hour of the program was taken up with commentary on Thatcher’s passing. Producer, Michel Panayotov, provided three significant Labor figures – the ultra-left Ken Livingstone, the failed Labor leader Neil Kinnock, and the present leader Ed Milliband. Three in a row! No independent voices.

The choice of Livingstone was particularly specious. Red Ken, as he is known in Private Eye and other journals, presented, unchallenged by the interviewer, that what what is wrong with modern Britain can be traced back to Thatcher’s policies.

It is 23 years since Thatcher resigned as prime minister, and for most of that period there have been Labor governments, reversing her policies, including ten years of Tony Blair, and the so called ‘third way”.

Also unchallenged by Breakfast was Livingstone’s claim to speak for Londoners in his bitter attack on Thatcher. Not mentioned was the fact that the former London Mayor was ousted by the popular Boris Johnson in 2008, and then was thrashed by him again in 2012.

The real question, I think, in assessing Thatcher’s legacy, is to ask, “what is left of Thatcherism?” The most obvious answer is that without Thatcher’s influence working with her great friend Ronald Reagan, we might still have the Cold War, and the malignant influence of the Soviet Union.

I reported from the old Soviet Union in the dreary days of Leonid Brezhnev, and, leaving aside the rest of the world, the Russians are much better off under Putin than they were then. More to the point, countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary and the eastern half of Germany are now vibrant democracies.

Thatcher also introduced the great wave of privatisations’ in Britain that later spread across the world, particularly to Asia and Europe. Anyone old enough to remember the old British Telecom, British Gas, and British Airways will tell you horror stories of what these businesses were like when public servants ran them. If you want to know more you can read my book on the subject Selling the Family Silver, still available on Amazon for next-to-nothing).

Of course, some privatizations’ were botched, particularly in Russia, where a society who had no experience of share markets since before the Russian Revolution, sold out their holdings at a modest profit to today’s oligarchs, who rejoiced in their monopolies. You can’t blame Thatcher for that.

On Thatcher’s watch Toyota, Nissan and Honda established and grew their manufacturing base in Britain, attracted by an open economy and labor market reforms. Investment poured into the country, and it prospered to the point where it was no longer “the sick man of Europe”.

There were mistakes too, particularly towards the end of Thatcher’s premiership.

Her reluctance to take a leadership role in Europe – despite being encouraged to do by the Germans and the French – was a mistake, though she spotted the dangers of the single currency, and rightly campaigned against it. She could have won the Falklands war without sinking the Belgrano.

Her poll tax – charging the poor the same as the rich for property they owned or occupied – was inequitable and ultimately brought her down.

Still, I suspect history will be kinder to her than the ABC. I lived in London during the Thatcher years, and people were more upbeat than they are now. I met her from time to time, and she was always prepared to give a straight answer to a straight question. (She was particularly well served by her media adviser, Bernard Ingham, a former labor correspondent on The Guardian.)

She also understood small business, a trait sadly lacking in Australian politics today. When I was appointed publisher and editor-in-chief of a new weekly newspaper employing about 50 people, we found suitable offices, but there were no phone lines. The about-to-be privatised British Telecom could not or would not help, and quoted a six month delay – and this in Central London.

The then Mayor, Livingstone, was not interested, nor was anyone else. Even pressure from the Financial Times, the owner of the new newspaper, could not budge them. In desperation I wrote a personal letter to Thatcher – whom at that point I’d never met – and the next day BT engineers were at our premises installing the lines. (By comparison I tried to get a simple answer to a simple question from Senator Stephen Conroy’s office last week, but neither calls nor emails were returned.)

Thatcher was not in the Germaine Greer school of feminism.

I suspect, despite contrasting political views, she might admire the tenacity of Julia Gillard. She certainly would appreciate the work ethic of Penny Wong and Julie Bishop.

Thatcher liked Australia and Australians. When she was prime minister her daughter, Carol, was a reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald. She did not think much of the Fraser Liberal government, but she got on well with Bob Hawke and admired Paul Keating, praising both for their reform agenda. Had dementia not taken a hold in her final years, I suspect she would be expressing disquiet about today’s Coalition, arguing the front bench lacks coherence and conviction, and appears unwilling to articulate the values she held so strongly.

Colin Chapman, president of the AIIA in NSW, was an executive on the Financial Times during the Thatcher years.


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