Dr Jay Dubashi
Margaret Thatcher ceased to be prime minister of Britain nearly a quarter century ago. Yet when she passed away last month, newspapers wrote so much about her as if a queen had died. She was accorded a lavish funeral, complete with a military parade, her coffin drawn by six horses from royal stables, and mounted on a gun carriage guarded by young officers from the army, navy, and air force, and bells ringing across London throughout the journey from the Parliament to St. Paul’s Cathedral where she was put to rest beside Winston Churchill.
Thatcher single-handedly changed the shape of British politics and helped to bring down the communist regime in Soviet Russia, and also end the cold war. For a grocer’s daughter who used to live above the shop, this was an extraordinary achievement. Unlike Churchill, with whom she is often compared, She was not born with a silver spoon. She fought for everything she achieved, as much for herself as her country, and went to 10 Downing Street from her grocer’s shop in the Midlands, and she reigned for eleven years – the longest a British PM has ever been in office, and too a woman, the first woman PM in history – and changed her country for ever.
I saw her twice – only saw her, never met her – and we may have had a few words. The first time, she was in a car going to Parliament, and some of us were standing in a corner of Downing street, waiting for the signals to change. The second time, we were in Bonn, then the capital of what used to be western Germany, and she was presiding over a meeting of the European Union, which incidentally, she hated. She addressed a press conference and I may have asked a couple of questions. She replied in a precise Oxford accent, every word in its place, as if she had anticipated the query and prepared her reply in advance.
They are all wondering how she did it, how she got England out of the big hole it had fallen into, and prepared the country for a role it later performed. Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, when her country was in the doldrums. It had lost its empire and, with it, its stature in the world. It was a diminished country, economically as well as politically, though it still packed a punch. Its industry had been hollowed out, and its currency had lost value. There was intense dissatisfaction all round, and labour was on the warpath.
Then came Thatcher and changed all that. I was invited to London by the British government in 1984, when the country was in the middle of a deep crisis. I remember going to the Treasury, the equivalent of our Finance Ministry, for a briefing, but the men in charge couldn’t tell me anything. Thatcher was apparently working on a new policy or policies, but they had not taken shape. And nobody expected her to do what she later did.
She decided to fight the trade unions, including the coal miner’s’ union, and also other lesser unions. She opened up the financial markets and made London a hub for global financial transactions. She removed controls on industry and abolished subsidies. Prices of milk and bread shot skywards and babies went without milk, but she did not buckle under. She stopped printing money and tightened the budget. She sold state-owned companies like British Airways, British Railways etc. and turned them over to private enterprises. And she brought inflation down from 25 per cent when she took over to 4 per cent, for which she received kudos from the middle class.
Where did the courage to do all this come from? She was a chemist by training and would have joined a chemical firm had she been accepted. She was thrown out at the first interview and never applied again.
The courage came from her deep faith in religion – she was an Anglican – and from her strong belief in the greatness of her country. It was a combination of religious faith and patriotism. Like Winston Churchill, she was a patriot as well as a deeply religious person. This combination drove her – as it had driven Chhatrapati Shivaji and later Lokmanya Tilak in India, three hundred and a hundred years before. It is a revolutionary combination and it always works.
Adolf Hitler was a patriot too, but he was devoid of religious faith, and his rule ended in anarchy and the annihilation of millions of Jews. Joseph Stalin was a patriot also, but like Hitler, had no faith in religion – which means no faith in humanity and no moral standards – and he turned out to be an ogre, a caricature of a ruler. His rule too ended in catastrophe and the break-up of his empire. Without religious faith, patriotism is worse than useless and can lead to inhuman tendencies. Without patriotism, religious faith is also worse than useless and can lead to atrocities in the name of religion, as we have seen in Islamic countries including Pakistan. In Syria, a civil war has been on for nearly a year, brother killing brother, all in the name of Islam, and there is still no end to it.
Thatcher was a strongly religious person. She used to attend church services every Sunday – the same church from where her body was taken to St. Paul’s Cathedral burial. England itself is ruled under the combined auspices of state and church. The queen is head of church as well as state. She appoints not only the prime minister but also bishops and archbishops. Mrs. Thatcher used to hold long discourses with them about the duties of political leaders like her. And their advice weighed with her as strongly as the advice from her political colleagues and advisers.
In India too, faith has always co-existed with state. Chhatrapati Shivaji valued advice from his religious leaders as well as state functionaries. Lokmanya Tilak was a great votary of Hindutva and a learned philosopher on Hindu scriptures. He combined his scholarship in religion matters with his deep knowledge of political issues and principles. This gave both of them – Shivaji as well as Tilak – a sense of balance between the two and therefore a sense of stability. Shivaji and Tilak were courageous leaders, not just political or military leaders, for politics without wisdom can ultimately be destructive, as it was in the case of Hitler and Stalin. Of course, Shivaji and Tilak are in totally different categories from Margaret Thatcher and operated at a much higher level than her, but they were all wise and courageous leaders which is why they achieved so much and also why their countrymen are so grateful to them for their leadership.
Margaret Thatcher had her critics, but, whether you agree with her or not, you must concede she had guts – unlike some of our own gutless leaders!