It was the news that a major roundabout in the heart of Warsaw may be named after the late Margaret Thatcher that really got me thinking. The same Margaret Thatcher whose recent passing seemed to divide UK as deeply as her time in office as Prime Minister (1979-1990)? Who by the time she left office was judged to be out of touch with the people and to have delusions of grandeur (she famously used the royal “We”) – an electoral liability?
But it’s true, apparently, and if approved, will be added to a number of Ronald Reagan streets, squares and the like in Poland. He’s another leader who lost popularity at home toward the end of his premiership, being barely able to string two words together. Indeed he was a bit of a laughing-stock from the start: “An actor in the White House!”. But in Poland it’s considered he did a great deal from the outside to bring down Communism – indeed, in alliance with Thatcher – hence he is honoured, and she is to be.
It’s the disconnect between these leaders’ popularity at home and abroad that has always fascinated me. One thinks of FW De Clerk, who facilitated the end of Apartheid, and then soon became a relatively unpopular and sidelined political figure in South Africa. Similarly, Poland’s very own Lech Walesa (see my post “Walesa’s Wail”, 17 March), though recently he’s doing a good job at alienating himself abroad, too. And, of course, there is Mikael Gorbachev.
Gorbachev unquestionably changed the world, but his fall from grace was pretty spectacular: he must have felt a bit like Churchill did on losing office in 1945, albeit he was effectively ousted in a coup rather than by the ballot-box.
In contrast, I remember attending a talk by Gorbachev at Oxford Town Hall in the early 90s. God knows how we got tickets: I remember the place being packed to the rafters. But my main memory – one I shall never forget – was the ovation Gorby got as he walked in from the back of the hall, through the audience, to the stage. There was a standing ovation, and cheering, that went on and on and on. Eventually, Gorbachev stood at he front of the stage, looking very dignified, and the applause continued. I’ve never experienced anything like it – at any concert, play, whatever. It was an emotional outpouring of respect, gratitude and affection. In the end he had to ask the audience to stop, after, I’d say, a good 10 minutes.
Why this disconnect between the reputation of these game changers at home and abroad? Probably there’s an entire book in that question, but my view is the maybe obvious one that they ushered in a world that very rapidly overtook them. This is what a number of articles said about Walesa following his recent outburst on homosexuality. The same can surely be said of Gorbachev who, for example, considered that a new Union might be a real possibility. FW De Clerk was tainted by association with criminality in the old Apartheid regime – and so on and so on. A combination of skeletons in the closet and a fast-changing society – a change these leviathans ushered in – seems to have done for them.
So, on my next visit to Warsaw I may well be screeching around a Margaret Thatcher roundabout, something almost unthinkable here in the UK where she held power for some 11 years. Myself, I’m long-termist about this. Though I didn’t agree with everything she did, I consider Thatcher was a remakable person who did an awful lot of good. One day, I have no doubt, there’ll be a number of Thatcher streets and squares over here, and students will spend their first year on campus in “Thatcher Hall”, the same way I found myself in the ubiquitous “Churchill Hall”.
Postscript: know the origin of the phrase “How the mighty have fallen”? Old Testament. It was the comment of future Israelite King David when he found out his father-in-law, King Saul, and brother-in-law, Jonathan, had fallen in battle with the Philistines. There’s a metaphor for the Thatcher roundabout in there somewhere (suggestions on a postcard)!