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April 9, 2013

Local experts: 'Iron Lady' influential, divisive

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Margaret Thatcher was remembered Monday by area college professors as an influential figure in recent history, who remained divisive more than 20 years after she left office.

Cherilyn Lacy, chairwoman of the Hartwick College History Department, said Thatcher was “one of the most formidable, long-lasting politicians” in British history. Regardless of how one sees the Conservative party leader’s politics, “she was very influential,” Lacy said. 

Thatcher  was responsible for decreasing the role of the state in the economy. After World War II , industry was nationalized and a comprehensive welfare program was established. When she took office in 1979, she said “the economy couldn’t afford it.” Her solution was to recommend a return to the free market that was unpopular with a lot of people who depended on the system.

When she started to dismantle it there were a lot of complaints, but “she was not a politician to wither under criticism if she felt she had to do it. She did not back down.”

She dealt with a lot of difficult issues besides the economy, this included terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army. She presided over the British recapture of the Falkland Islands that strained relations between Britain and Argentina for quite a long time. By presenting a united front with President Ronald Reagan, she helped end the Cold War.

State University of New York at Oneonta Associate Professor of British History, Matthew Hendley, said she is a very divisive figure who “is a giant with a shadow that haunts the Conservative Party today.”

Her biggest achievement was changing the consensus that formed after World War II that created a big welfare state, with a large role for trade unions. Thatcher upended that, taming the Labor Party. “Becoming the first female prime minister of Great Britain was a big accomplishment in what what was a sexist society,” he said.

Historians will debate her accomplishments for years to come. Some things improved, such as being able to start a business or investing in the stock market. But she made it worse for others in areas that lost manufacturing and coal mining. She cut a lot of funding for universities that had a big impact on scientific research. Her policies led to selling off a lot state-owned business. This was beneficial in the case of British Airways, but others were so not successful.

SUNY Oneonta Assistant Professor of Political Science, Brett Heindl, said she will be remembered as “a polarizing force. Liberals despised her - Conservatives loved her.”

“She was a complicated figure” who was one of the iconic politicians of the 20th century. She will best be remembered for privatizing so much of British public services. Her policies helped revitalize the British economy that had previously been stagnant.

“Despite what one feels of her policies, she has to be recognized as an incredibly principled woman.” This earned her nickname of the “Iron Lady.”

She will also be remembered for trying to restore Britain’s place of the world stage with her “muscular” policies in the Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland. “She sent a message that Britain will not be pushed around. It helped solidify a lot of support.”

SUNY Delhi Associate Professor of Liberal Arts and historian, Tim Nicholson, said she was one of the dominant world figures of the 1980’s, on a par with Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he said.

She helped implement a lot of structural reforms and policies to the economy. If a citizen was in the middle class or above, they could do quite well, but those who weren’t often had a difficult time.

The reforms that included privatizing industry and limiting state spending were implemented in her country and had an impact in other parts of the world. Her policies were responsible for the economic boom that followed but they did not benefit the whole country, he said.