Rust Plagues the Iron Lady

Will former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s parting shot at Europe tarnish her legacy?

March 30, 2002

Will former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's parting shot at Europe tarnish her legacy?

Ideology has long been a plague for continental Europe. Many wars and revolutions in the past two centuries can trace their roots to rigid ideological extremes.

Since the end of World War II, however, the entire continent has benefited from an introduction of the Anglo-Saxon fondness for compromise, a system of checks and balances — and a sense of fair play.

So it is indeed surprising that extremism raises its ugly head in, of all places, the British Isles. That it has come from a prominent figure in the Conservative Party — which claims to champion Britain’s hallowed traditions — is all the more strange.

But as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prepares to exit the political stage, she seems quite determined to live up to her old nickname, the Iron Lady — even if her opinions are rusty.

In March 2002, Baroness Thatcher caused an uproar in the United Kingdom by penning an acerbic and inflammatory assessment of the European Union. Europe, she wrote, has been nothing but trouble. It spawned Marx and Hitler, Mrs. Thatcher insists.

Thus, it would be better for Britain to reassert its sovereignty — and thus withdraw from almost every common policy and undertaking pursued by united Europe for the past half-century. The EU is “perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era,” according to Mrs. Thatcher.

Mere days after Mrs. Thatcher’s salvo, news reports announced that she was retiring from public life. She has been unwell, suffering two minor strokes that have whittled her speaking schedule — including the planned promotion of her new book, Statecraft — to nothing. Thus, it appears that her vitriolic attack on Europe will be her curtain call.

In a way, that’s too bad. Mrs. Thatcher’s 11-year term in office was marked by significant achievements — including the revitalization of Britain’s markets, curbing of trade union power and privatization of many sclerotic, formerly state-owned industries. Her close relationship with world leaders — including Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush — placed Britain once again in the vanguard of world decision making.

But the Iron Lady’s radicalism marred her domestic legacy. Some public services that shouldn’t have been privatized in the first place — such as British Rail — have run into serious trouble recently. Her shrill tone also had a negative impact on public discourse in Britain — and often polarized its citizens.

Mrs. Thatcher’s extreme views on European Union will certainly tarnish her legacy. In many ways, she has come full circle — exiting on the same shrill note upon which she first came to public prominence.

But her remarks will have an even more far-reaching effect on her Conservative party — which has been deeply divided on Europe for the past decade and more. Though her statements were strong, they will only weaken the political credibility of those who wish to see her dream of a Britain out of Europe become a reality.