Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Thatcher Outrage

I’ve speculated here that the noticeable rehabilitation of George Bush’s reputation is less a matter of people changing their minds about his performance as president than about the legitimacy of this presidency. Bush may have exercised his presidential authority unwisely or ineptly, but more people are ready to grant in hindsight that, at least after the 2004 election, he was acting within the scope of his authority as a duly elected president. Even people, like Andrew Sullivan, who’ve spent the last few years making the case that Bush is a war criminal, recognize that they’re standing against a rising tide of public opinion.

I’ve argued that, whatever your view of the wisdom or morality of Bush's policies, you should welcome this development as evidence of our democratic system’s regenerative capacities. That so many people wouldn’t acknowledge the legitimacy (as opposed to the wisdom) of Bush’s policies when he was president, and won’t acknowledge the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency today, jeopardizes everyone’s chance over the long haul of making democratic government answer to one's values.

Something similar happened in the U.K. in the 1990s when, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party finally made its peace with the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, people on the British left treated her with the same mixture of contempt and revulsion that American liberals treated Bush. New Labourites still disagreed with the basic thrust of Thatcherism, but they visibly conceded its political legitimacy even while a new generation of Tories was trying their best to put some distance between themselves and Thatcher. That was a hard sell for the trade union wing of the Labour Party that had spent the late seventies and eighties waging, and losing, the class struggle against Thatcher governments. But Lady Thatcher got her title, and Thatcherism became a widely accepted part of the British political landscape, despite their opposition.

That opposition never went entirely away, but over time it became an increasingly empty gesture. Now it’s a bad joke:

“Labour leadership candidate John McDonnell said yesterday he would 'assassinate' Margaret Thatcher if he could go back to the 1980s.

“The left-wing MP made the outrageous claim at a hustings as he tried to win over union activists - who hold a third of the votes for the party leadership.

“Mr. McDonnell said he had once been asked in a warm-up question on the BBC's Any Questions what he would do if he found himself in an Ashes To Ashes situation – a reference to the time-travelling TV series where a policewoman finds herself transported back to the 1980s.

“To applause from the audience in Southport, Merseyside, he said that he would have liked to go back to that era and ‘assassinate Thatcher’.”

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