There's been so much commentary following the death of Margaret Thatcher that the head is spinning trying to separate the rumours from half truths, truth from opinion, lies from facts. Still, it's not impossible to cut through in search of the real legacy of Thatcherism or the person herself. One didn't have to live in Britain during Thatcher's reign to feel what was happening or understand the impact her politics had and still has on the West. The mere fact that she had such a lasting impact marks her down as a great global figure - the economic direction she forged even had an influence on the Australian Left over the course of the Hawke-Keating governments of 1983 to 1996. However, that doesn't mean she was a great prime minister.
Margaret Thatcher's strength was also her problem: she was the embodiment of Keysian economics in extremis and her policies were the expression of unrestrained ideological conservatism. But the inevitable consequences were high inflation, massive unemployment, social unrest and wealth disparity that affected the lives of a generation. What Britain needed at the time was a transition from a stagnant economy to a more liberal one, not the kind of heartless ideological warfare and divisiveness that she ushered in. The country needed Thatcher-lite, not Thatcher-full strength.
Mrs Thatcher was the tool the Tory establishment used to smash two decades of nationalisation of industry and union excess. But the old boys had no intention of a shop keeper's daughter with a phony upperclass accent staying in power any longer than necessary. They could not have foreseen that the Falklands War and the illegal sinking of the Argentine ship, The Belgrano, would change all that. The Iron Lady would be re-elected by a huge majority in 1983 on the back of nationalism following the war and was elected for another term after that. Eventually the old boys got rid of her and put in one of their own, John Major, who turned out to be a wet fish in comparison.
Much of the discussion and opining about Mrs Thatcher in the media to date has been in reality, cheer leading from the Right, or bitter resentment from the Left. It says a lot about the person that she could divide people even after death. Each side is now trying to grab the moral political high ground. So perhaps a recent economic catastrophe can best illuminate the end result of Thatcherism. Without her example, Ronald Reagan may have been less inclined to slash government spending, slash business taxes and deregulate to the extent he did. With this in mind it's reasonable to assume that the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 could have been avoided.
Margaret Thatcher let the genie out of the bottle and we can't get it back in. Consumerism is now everything. Thatcherism and neo-liberal economics produces extremes: greater wealth creation but greater wealth disparity. Lower taxes but fewer government services. A focus on individual rights over collective rights. The middle ground is a desert. It wins but it loses ... just as she did. That has been the true legacy of Margaret Thatcher: the hedonism of the consumer society.