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Britain debates: Is it OK to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher?

Perhaps nothing speaks to how polarizing a figure Margaret Thatcher was (and continues to be) than the varied reactions to her passing. As the day comes to a close, many in Britain have mourned the former prime minister's death, including current Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut a European trip short to lead a somber tribute to her. But others have been downright giddy.

Critics of Thatcher took to the streets (the Glasgow City Council dispersed a social media-organized "party" in a public square, citing safety concerns) and the Twittersphere to hail her death:

 

Others were more political in their forms of celebration. Referring to the miners whose unions Thatcher vigorously battled during her time as premier, British comedian Sarah Millican tweeted:

 

Meanwhile, the irreverent website IsThatcherDeadYet.co.uk, which was set up in 2010, updated its homepage after three years to read:


And even as the creators have received threats on Twitter, the page has garnered more than 200,000 Facebook likes and launched the trending hashtag #nowthatchersdead (alarming many a Cher fan).

All of this has led the British media to debate whether it's appropriate to celebrate the death of the nation's first female prime minister.

In an op-ed for the conservative Telegraph, British journalist and author Toby Young writes:

[I]f it hadn't been for Thatcher, these same Left-wing gadflies might well be rotting in a Soviet prison camp somewhere east of the Urals. That sounds like an exaggeration, but we shouldn't forget her contribution to ending the Cold War.

Writing in the more liberal pages of the Guardian, the American journalist Glenn Greenwald argues that Thatcher's transgressions -- which include her denunciation of Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists as well as her friendship with "brutal tyrants" like Chile's Augusto Pinochet -- should not be overlooked in the rush to lionize her:

To demand that all of that be ignored in the face of one-sided requiems to her nobility and greatness is a bit bullying and tyrannical, not to mention warped. As David Wearing put it this morning in satirizing these speak-no-ill-of-the-deceased moralists: "People praising Thatcher's legacy should show some respect for her victims. Tasteless."

Greenwald goes on to note that Western media offered more balanced and critical coverage after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Whether Thatcher's death is cause for celebration or sadness, it has made one thing clear: As Guardian sports columnist David Conn tweeted earlier today, "one major legacy was a divided country, divisions being furiously reinforced today."

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Was Margaret Thatcher Britain's greatest post-war prime minister?

The rare public figure as beloved by some as she was reviled by others, Margaret Thatcher, who died today at 87, was the first female prime minister in British history and a world leader who arguably did more than anyone else to usher in today's free-market capitalism. In pushing for deregulation, privatization, and lower tax rates, Thatcher succeeded in dismantling what she saw as a bloated British public sector that was holding the country back. Though Ronald Reagan embarked on a similar project in the United States, Thatcher was first. And given neo-liberalism's ascendance today, on that basis alone she deserves to be called an historic figure.

But does Thatcher deserve to be called the greatest post-war prime minister in British history?

Unlike American historians -- who love nothing more than to debate endlessly about who qualifies as the greatest U.S. president -- the Brits have more of an aversion to this sort of ranking, and the first rigorous survey of British academics that examined the question of prime ministerial greatness was not carried out until 2004, by researchers at the University of Leeds. That study included all 20th-century premiers and crowned Clement Attlee the victor, with Thatcher finishing in fourth place:

1.  Clement Attlee (Labour, 1945-1951)
2.  Winston Churchill (Conservative, 1940-1945, 51-55)
3.  David Lloyd George (Liberal, 1916-1922)
4.  Margaret Thatcher (Conservative, 1979-1990)
5.  Harold Macmillan (Conservative, 1957-1963)

If one limits the field to post-war prime ministers, the discussion becomes even more interesting. David Lloyd George drops off the list, and Winston Churchill should arguably be excluded -- his second term in office predictably did not approach the heights of his wartime leadership. That puts Thatcher in second place behind Attlee, the man responsible for laying the foundation of the British welfare state.

Thatcher, meanwhile pulls ahead of Attlee in surveys of British public opinion. A YouGov poll from November 2011, for instance, found that 27 percent of Britons consider Thatcher the greatest prime minister since 1945, while 20 percent give the nod to Churchill  (Atlee trails in a distant fifth place with only five percent). Looking at the cross-tabs, that result appears to stem from a pro-Labour split between Attlee, Churchill, Tony Blair, and Harold Wilson. But it is nonetheless a surprising outcome for Thatcher, whose approval ratings in office fluctuated a great deal.

In many ways, Thatcher and Attlee couldn't be more different. While Attlee founded the National Health Service -- and with it the British welfare state -- Thatcher fought to undo much of what Attlee had built. Where Attlee saw the comforting hand of the state, Thatcher saw encroaching state power. The 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing eurozone crisis represent the latest, most important test for whether European governments will work to maintain Attlee's legacy and keep the state involved in the economy, or move further toward Thatcherism and embrace the free market. 

The outcome of that argument could play a big role in determining whether it is Thatcher or Attlee who ultimately secures the title of Britain's greatest post-war prime minister.

(h/t to reader Erica Jackson, who pointed us to the Leeds study)

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