Thatcher Looms Large in British Contest

Two candidates to become prime minister see her as a role model
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 31, 2022 9:55 AM CDT
Thatcher Looms Large in British Contest
Liz Truss, Britain's foreign secretary, is running for prime minister. One historian sees her as a modern version of Margaret Thatcher, an "Instagram Thatcher.'   (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File)

Two people are running to be Britain’s next prime minister, but a third presence looms over the contest: Margaret Thatcher. The late former prime minister dominated Britain in the 1980s, and has left a large and contested legacy, per the AP. Critics see her as an intransigent ideologue whose free-market policies frayed social bonds and gutted the country's industrial communities. But for the governing Conservative Party, Thatcher is an icon, an inspiration, and the presiding spirit who made Britain fit for the modern era. In the race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader and prime minister, both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak claim to embody the values of Thatcher, who died in 2013 at 87.

Asked who was Britain’s greatest prime minister? Both candidates unhesitatingly say Thatcher. Sunak made a key speech in the late leader’s hometown of Grantham, declaring himself a proponent of “common-sense Thatcherism,” while his wife and children took selfies in front of the Iron Lady’s bronze statue. Truss talks about her own modest origins, inviting comparisons to grocer’s daughter Thatcher, and adopts poses and outfits—bold blue dresses, pussy-bow blouses—that echo the distinctive style of Britain’s first female prime minister. Historian Richard Vinen of King’s College London says Truss is an “Instagram Thatcher.” And Robert Saunders of Queen Mary University of London likens Thatcher to a mythical figure. “Like Thor’s hammer, Thatcher’s handbag can bestow godlike powers on those deemed worthy to lift it,” Saunders wrote.

Thatcher’s decade in power, through war and peace, boom and bust, offers rich pickings for acolytes to choose from. She was a wartime leader who defeated Argentina over the Falkland Islands, a democrat who stood up to the Soviet Union and saw the Cold War end, a union-bashing capitalist who unleashed the power of the financial markets. “You can basically cherry-pick what you want,” says Victoria Honeyman, associate professor of British politics at the University of Leeds. Truss and Sunak, for example, both claim to be offering Thatcherite economics, but their policies are very different. Truss says she will boost borrowing and cut taxes immediately to ease Britain’s cost-of-living crisis, while Sunak says it’s vital to get the country's soaring inflation rate under control first. Read the full analysis.

(More Margaret Thatcher stories.)

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