The Shadow of the Iron Lady

Why Margaret Thatcher still makes life difficult for Britain's Conservatives.

LONDON — The single greatest testament to the life and career of Margaret Thatcher is that it is impossible to imagine what Britain would be like in 2013 had she never existed or never become prime minister. Love her or revile her, this Iron Titan made every other postwar prime minister seem a pygmy by comparison.

Thatcher challenged the widely accepted notion that decline -- both relative and absolute -- was inevitable. No, no, no … it was not. Britain did not have to be the sick man of Europe. Her mission was to put the Great back into Great Britain. She so transformed British politics that every mainstream party, whether left or right, is an heir to Thatcher.

The arguments that rage in Britain today -- over the country's relationship with the European Union, over the size and purpose of the state, over the nature and extent of the welfare state -- all began in the age of Margaret Thatcher. She did not settle all these questions, but she made the weather for today's politics. She was a politician of consequence: The Lady was not for turning, and there has been no turning back from her legacy. No Margaret Thatcher, no Tony Blair. No Tony Blair, no David Cameron. We still live in the shadow of Thatcherism.

Her legacy is everywhere. She sold off huge chunks of social housing at discount prices, helping aspirational Britons onto the property ladder. If Britain was once a nation of shopkeepers (according to Napoleon), it became in the 1980s, for the first time really, a true democracy of property owners. An obsession with permanently rising house prices would prove damaging 20 years after the Iron Lady fell, but in her 1980s pomp, millions of working-class and lower-middle-class Britons were grateful for the chance to buy their own homes.

She believed in a stockholders' democracy too. When she came to power, British business was nationalized to an extraordinary degree. The government owned hotels and trash removal companies, as well as steel and shipbuilding industries. None were any good. Thatcher privatized state-owned industries such as British Airways, British Telecom, and British Gas. Millions of Britons purchased shares in the newly privatized utilities (though most were sold soon after), and almost every newspaper offered lucrative competitions to their readers based on the performance of the stock market. Financial deregulation -- the so-called "Big Bang" of 1986 -- transformed the City of London's prospects, kick-starting a revolution in financial services that saw London regain its place as a global financial behemoth. Here too, a critic might suggest, the seeds of 2008's great financial crash were sown. Nevertheless, from Latin America to India, other countries followed Britain's lead.

Like every other great leader -- and, like her or not, few dispute Thatcher's greatness -- she contained contradictions. She was a very pragmatic revolutionary. When she became leader of the Tory party in 1975, she could barely muster support from much more than half the Conservative parliamentary caucus. Nor were Thatcherites in a majority in her first cabinets. She and her small band of supply-side true believers were outnumbered by the so-called "wets" on the Tory benches.

Indeed, Thatcherism was an insurgency that only slowly took control of the Conservative Party. And though she won three thumping election victories, Thatcherism never quite enjoyed a majority in the country at large. Although many -- most of them men -- were devoted to her, she was more widely admired than loved. And, of course, she was hated too.

Her downfall was two-pronged. Trouble on the home front was combined with problems abroad to devastating effect. A disastrous reform of local taxation, following her third election victory in 1987, levied flat rates -- regardless of personal circumstance or income -- and was swiftly and devastatingly dubbed a new "poll tax." She seemed out of touch, indifferent to suggestions that it was manifestly unfair for a duke to pay the same charge as a bus driver. Her political judgment, for so long so sure, had failed.

Europe was her undoing. Although she had signed treaties that would inevitably lead to greater European integration, she was bitterly opposed to any moves toward a single currency or a continental "superstate." Arguments about whether the British pound should shadow the Deutsche mark or join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism provoked the resignations of Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Geoffrey Howe, the former foreign secretary turned deputy prime minister. Those earthquakes produced a leadership challenge that proved fatal. But her opposition to a single currency now seems prescient.

None of the five men who have succeeded her as leader of the Tory party have found a satisfactory means of healing the divisions within the party over Europe that first erupted during the Lady's reign. At best, a series of temporary truces have been called -- but the bigger questions, first asked by Thatcher, about Britain's relationship with Europe remain unanswered. These issues helped cripple John Major's premiership and may yet ruin Cameron's too.

In the five elections since Thatcher was defenestrated by her own party, the Tories have won just one majority (Major's narrow, come-from-behind victory in 1992). Thatcher's legacy has loomed large. Paradoxically, her great victories came, at least in part, at the expense of her own party's future fortunes.

By the end of the 1980s, the Tory party was beginning to be thought of as "the nasty party." Thatcherism's emphasis on the individual and its skepticism of government interventions in the market had brought the British economy back to life (with the not-inconsiderable help of North Sea oil revenues). Labor unions no longer decided -- as they had in the 1970s -- who would govern Britain or how they would govern the country. Her confrontations with the unions -- notably the coal miners -- were brutal but necessary. The decline of sclerotic heavy industry may have been inevitable, but in too many parts of Britain jobs, lost in coal-mining, steel-production, and shipbuilding were not replaced. A generation was lost in the north of England, south Wales, and the west of Scotland. Joblessness and welfare dependency followed. It became easy to portray Conservative ministers as out of touch and heartless, indifferent to the suffering caused by the wholesale reorientation of the British economy.

The "up by your bootstraps" ethos was all very well and good, but what, critics asked, if you had no boots in the first place? You might accept that something had to be done to revitalize Britain, but for many the cost proved appallingly high. Thatcher was portrayed -- to the point of gross caricature -- as a prime minister who blamed the poor for their poverty. This was unfair, yet it contained a germ of truth. There was, especially in her later years, an uncompromising harshness to Thatcherite rhetoric that proved toxic. Blair neither could nor wanted to roll back the Thatcherite revolution, but though he accepted her economic reforms he realized that Britain was ready for a softer, more inclusive approach to society. Where Thatcher believed in the individual, Blair was a communitarian. He reformed the Thatcherite settlement more than he challenged it.

More than 15 years after the Lady fell, Cameron was elected on a mandate to modernize and detoxify the Conservative Party's image. Henceforth, the party would offer voters a British brand of "compassionate Conservatism." Where Thatcher divided the country, Cameron would return to the "One Nation" Tory tradition. He would be a unifier, not a divider.

Events have complicated that process. The consequences of the financial crash and Gordon Brown's spendthrift years in power have forced Cameron to recalibrate his ambitions. Austerity is little more popular now than it was when Thatcher came to power in 1979. But where Thatcher relished confrontation, Cameron is by nature a more conciliatory figure. This, too, has complicated his task. Restructuring Britain's public finances has proved a painful business; the public approves of austerity and welfare reform in the abstract, but shies away from specific cuts. Efforts at reform have cost Cameron dearly, jeopardizing his detoxification project. Meanwhile, the prime minister is assailed by right-wing Thatcherite true-believers within his party, but not every policy question can be answered by asking, "What would Maggie do?"

In truth, Thatcher was more pragmatic than is sometimes recognized. She reoriented the British economy but did not dramatically shrink the size of the state. Even so, her premiership remains the gold standard by which postwar British prime ministers are judged. Her legacy is as enormous as it is divisive. None of her successors has moved beyond the shadow the Iron Lady still casts, even in death. Nor does it look as though Cameron will prove any exception to that trend.

She was the last of the great conviction politicians, and her death merely magnifies the extent to which she overshadows her successors. Gloria Swanson's famous line in Sunset Boulevard could usefully be adapted to serve as Margaret Thatcher's epitaph: "I am big! It's the politics that got small."

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images


Russia’s Digital Underground

How the Kremlin is waging war on information freedom.

MOSCOW — On March 26, a village school in a distant Russian region in Eastern Siberia, only few kilometers from the Mongolian border, was raided by the authorities. A team of FSB agents with the support of a local prosecutor's office rushed into the school in Kochetovo village in the Tuva republic. Were these agents of the state hot on the trail of terrorists, Mafiosi, or drug smugglers? No, they were there to check on a software update, specifically whether the school's computers were outfitted with filtering software to prevent access to banned websites.

They shortly found out that the software was installed, but did indeed have some gaps: one of the agents typed in "How to make a bomb" on Yandex, Russia's most popular search engine, and got back 13 million links. Kavkaz Center, the Chechen rebels' propaganda website, also turned out to be accessible. The inspection team also reported that sites with instructions for making a smoking blend were accessible. As a result, a lawsuit was filed by the local prosecutor and the school's director Andrei Oyun was fined. (Russian legislation makes responsible the organizations that provide access, not Internet service providers.) But forget who takes the blame -- the real concern is that Moscow, even in the far outer reaches of the country, is tightening the screws on the web.

The principle of Internet censorship is not a new one to Russian authorities. For at least five years, regional prosecutors have implemented court decisions requiring Internet providers to block access to banned sites accused of extremism. But this has not been done systematically: sites blocked in one region remained accessible in others.

The Single Register, officially introduced on Nov. 1, 2012, aimed to solve this problem. Three government agencies -- the Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications), the Federal Antidrug Agency, and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare -- submit data for the government's black list of sites. Service providers are then required to block access to sites within 24 hours of their blacklisting on the Single Register.

Since November 1, hundreds of websites have been banned from the Russian Internet. The list includes websites ranging from text taken from William Powell 's The Anarchist Cookbook to the lighthearted Australian viral YouTube hit "Dumb Ways to Die." The law has had offline consequences as well. Institutions providing public access to the Internet -- schools, libraries, Internet cafés, and even post offices -- have been targeted for law enforcement inspections to check whether their computers have special software to prevent access to banned websites.

The introduction of national Internet filtering was one of the measures the Kremlin adopted in response to the Arab Spring as well as the street protests that erupted following last year's controversial Russian presidential election. To the Kremlin and the security services, these events served as proof that social networks were another tool created by the United States to topple regimes in the countries where the opposition is too weak to mobilize protests. "New technologies are used by Western special services to create and maintain a level of continual tension in society with serious intentions extending even to regime change.... Our elections, especially the presidential election and the situation in the preceding period, revealed the potential of the blogosphere," said the FSB First Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov on March 27, 2012, at a meeting of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

This assumption has come to define the Kremlin's approach to the Internet both in Russia and abroad. At home, the Kremlin's introduction of the national black list was accompanied by the deployment of new surveillance technologies to monitor social networks and the Internet as a whole. In August 2012, at a meeting organized by the Ministry of Communications, a working group of representatives of the country's biggest telecom companies concluded that the only way to implement the law which established the Single Register was through deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which allows Internet service providers to peer into people's Internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages. DPI also helps identify users -- what is downloaded by whom, and who looked for what on the Internet. By late fall 2012, all the biggest telecoms in Russia had DPI operational on their networks.

This effort also built on earlier initiatives. Russia's security services started buying special software from companies such as Analytic Business Solutions, SyTech, iTeco, and Medialogia for monitoring in the mid-2000s. The most famous example was in 2006, on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, when the Interior Ministry bought a "Random Information Collection System" from the Russian software company Smartware -- as a precaution, it claimed, against extremism. Now dozens of Russian companies supply software to monitor the activities of opposition groups -- or anyone, theoretically -- in social networks. 

There's evidence these efforts may be going beyond Russia's borders. In August, Kommersant reported that the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media. Once developed, the software could allow SVR personnel to monitor social networks, but also spread propaganda abroad. Reports suggest these efforts will mainly be aimed at other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe.

So far, the government has proven adept at getting major international websites to comply with its directives: Google removed the controversial The Innocence of Muslims video from YouTube on December 26, Twitter blocked an account that promoted drugs on March 15, and on March 29, Facebook took down a page called Club Suicide rather than see the entire network blacklisted.

All of these efforts add up to a larger philosophical and operational aim: the Kremlin intends to establish a system of state sovereignty within cyberspace, with clearly delineated virtual borders. At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) conference in Dubai last December, Moscow made efforts to convince the international community to hand over the functions of managing the distribution of domain names and IP-addresses to the ITU. Up until now this has been the responsibility of non-profit organizations based in the United States, organizations that by and large hold information freedom paramount. While the U.S. government exercises little influence over these groups, Russia views the Internet as a vertical hierarchical structure under the control of one country, the United States, and it aims to take some of that power back.

The Russian delegation to the conference proposed limiting the right of access to the Internet in such cases where, "telecommunication services are used for the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs or undermining the sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and public safety of other states, or to divulge information of a sensitive nature." The Russian proposals were supported by China and 87 other countries, but not the United States or Europe. But Moscow does not intend to let the matter rest. "We could return to that issue at the coming G8 Summit," Andrey Krutskikh, a special coordinator for information technologies in the Foreign Ministry, told us.

Russia's vision of a bordered Internet probably won't come to pass, but that won't stop it from stepping up its controls domestically. The worst-case scenario isn't quite the creation of a national firewall, modeled after China's, as it's unlikely that the Kremlin could do this in practice. But the Russian government could conceivably launch a campaign to bring the world's most popular global web platforms such as Gmail, Facebook, or Twitter under Russian jurisdiction -- either requiring them to be accessible in Russia in the domain extensions under government control (.ru, .su, etc.) or obliging them to be hosted on Russian territory.

"The option that some [global] resources will be obliged to establish Russian representative offices is plausible. I think many companies could agree to this. After all, the Russian Internet market is one of the largest in Europe." said Karen Kazaryan, chief analyst at the nonprofit Russian Electronic Communications Association. If this were to happen, such services would then be subject to local legislation and forced to build in backdoors for monitoring or manipulation by the secret services.

For a long time, Russians enjoyed complete freedom online. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russian officials claimed repeatedly they would never adopt the Chinese approach to Internet censorship. But the Kremlin's fear of the rise of political activism on the Internet and of the protests that gripped Moscow last year must be palpable. If a school in a Siberian village can get raided by the famously cumbersome Russian bureaucracy, what's next?