Margaret Thatcher: feminist politician?

I like to believe there was once a time when politics actually meant something. During this time – most likely before television and Facebook and the vox pop –political life was about inspiring people to strive for a better way of living through a dignified, respectful approach to public policy and legislative change. Back then (whenever this was), politicians were relatable and reliable and lead by example; a politics more concerned with what was right that what was popular.

Nowadays, politics has become an exercise in public relations – all image and no substance. This is never more noticeable than during times of crisis and thanks to the global recession we have seen the worst possible type of politics played out for us every day – like a bad soap opera you just can’t seem to turn off. The squabbling, the mudslinging, the name calling, the tantrums, the baby kissing, the corruption – it’s all very entertaining but as a result leaves us utterly without respect for the people in charge.

Of course there have been a few rare exceptions; perhaps the most notable in my mind was a mid-to-late 20th century politics of deregulation, privatisation and staunch practicality known as ‘Thatcherism’. Largely accepted as a success, Thatcherism was able to reinvigorate the British economy of the late 1970s, avoiding what could have been the complete financial collapse of the British economic system. Due to its philosophy of financial austerity, short-term sacrifice for long-term gain and individual responsibility it wasn’t always a popular political platform, and as a result nor was its namesake. Yet popularity was never a priority for Margaret Thatcher; she was motivated by an unwavering and uncompromising conviction that the same principles she used at home keeping the domestic budget afloat would be as successful applied to the national economy, and she was right.

At times deeply vilified for refusing to yield to demands she ease her strict policy measures, there is little question she helped steer Britain away from an economics of dependency to one of practical self-reliance. She lived this philosophy in and out of Downing Street, applying the same austere practicality to her own finances as she did to Britain’s – quite the opposite of the economics of state-supported indulgence and corruption that so derailed Greece.

“My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.”

Perhaps the most unsung of feminists, Thatcher’s belief in financial independence as the key to true freedom inspired many women. My favourite quote of hers comes from an interview with Time magazine in 1979, “There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.” I believe this can be applied as much to women’s emancipation as it was to Britain’s economic independence.

Maybe it is that her practicality that appeals to me, as a self-confessed realist. Certainly I have surprised myself with how much I have related to her right wing politics. Of course, Thatcher abhorred extremism and her policies were less to do with far right Conservative moralising about the personal choices of others and more to do with encouraging individuals to reclaim control.

Likewise, Thatcher’s strength and at times severity ran contrary to the weak-willed flighty female stereotype and lead to her soubriquet, the Iron Lady. As Thatcher once said when addressing a women’s trade union in 1965, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

In the end, people just want to be inspired, and unfortunately I see little that is inspirational in politics today. If they truly want to lead, give us something to follow.

Footage from Margaret Thatcher’s last speech to the Commons in 1990