Theresa May is only the second woman ever to lead a UK government as the Prime Minister and be in charge of the country. However, the epoch of equality in politics has not yet dawned.
May has been recently compared by the media to Margaret Thatcher. It’s an obvious comparison on the surface – two Conservatives with a reputation for being headstrong and hardworking – yet when comparing their policies they aren’t as close as they initially might seem. For instance, Thatcher used to advocate a laissez faire approach to business economics, a hands-off approach in which the state lets the markets work uninterrupted, which resulted in deregulation. May, on the other hand, wishes to give workers power in the boardroom. The real reason behind this comparison, I believe, is the fact that they are both women.
As a society, we tend to treat male and female politicians differently. We are likely to forget about the achievements of strong women in power whilst praising men who are not so successful. It is worrying to think that May’s positive achievements during her time as Prime Minister may be cast aside simply because she is a woman. The very same thing that happened to the country’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher’s reputation as a controversial figure is in itself uncontroversial. She is held in the highest esteem by many and is a symbol of evil to others. What can’t be contested though is that during her leadership she managed to accomplish great things: she opened Britain to global markets which helped launch London into its position as a hub of international trade; she allowed thousands to become homeowners by legislating the sale of council houses; and, the clearest example of her success, she achieved an amazing 80% increase in living standards.
Not only did Thatcher succeed in economics but she also thrived in global policy. She forged a special relationship with Ronald Reagan who stated that, ‘The United States and the United Kingdom are bound together by inseparable ties of ancient history and present friendship … There’s been something very special about the friendships between the leaders of our two countries. And may I say to my friend the Prime Minister, I’d like to add two more names to this list of affection—Thatcher and Reagan”. Famously, she mediated between Gorbachev and Reagan to end the Cold War and embark on a road to nuclear disarmament. Perhaps most notoriously and most attached to her legacy was her tackling of the unions and for better or worse she won her battle and crippled the unions.
It is worth contrasting Thatcher with yet another great Conservative figure, Winston Churchill; voted “greatest ever Briton” in 2003 BBC poll, widely regarded as a British hero and beacon of British spirit. One cannot deny that winning the Second World War was a great achievement, but when comparing their time in politics it’s clear to see that Thatcher was a better politician. The difference between them is that society has allowed Churchill to escape with his many, many flaws – while Thatcher’s influence has been repeatedly undermined and belittled.
Prior to becoming Prime Minister in the heat of the Second World War, Churchill was once a Liberal MP. Privately he supported eugenics, commenting in a letter that
…The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.
He refused to support women’s suffrage (and later on felt the same about universal suffrage) and condemned India’s bid for independence. As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924-1929, he pegged the sterling to the gold standard at $4.80, making British industry compete poorly on the market, contributing to what would later transform into the Great Depression.
Churchill entered Downing Street during the Second World War. Britain and the Allies won the war and Churchill received much acclaim for his part. Being a Prime Minister during wartime seemed to be the perfect role for him: his rhetoric was second to none and his charisma kept British spirits high in the darkest hour. Yet when peace came, the Conservatives lost the election to Labour, led by Clement Attlee.
Surely this should speak volumes, that such a successful Prime Minister, the victor of the biggest war of all time, couldn’t win the hearts of his own electorate after the war’s end? But history has fallen in love with Churchill. Thatcher – although she did not win a war – did manage to reform the British financial industry, to privatise national assets to improve efficacy, stop an invasion in the Falkland’s and be elected to office three times.
Society forgives Churchill for his warmongering, deep-seated racism to indigenous populations and poor economic policy, holding him up as one of the greatest Britons in our history; but Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister is typically celebrated only by fellow Conservatives. I believe this says a lot about how society perceives male and female politicians and it is why I wholeheartedly welcome Theresa May as Prime Minister. Even if I disagree with her on many policies, it is a great achievement in this country to have a second female Prime Minister.
Miguel daCosta Leal
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