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Reflections on Lady Thatcher - Leadership, Feminism and Legacy

11/04/2013 17:36 BST | Updated 11/06/2013 10:12 BST

Lady Thatcher's death has become its own rolling news event, with wall-to-wall coverage in the days leading up to her funeral revealing the sometimes still bitter division in opinions about her premiership. Looking to the future however, one may also ask whether her indomitable style of leadership would get any traction in today's political environment, whether she advanced the progress of women in politics, and what her political legacy is and may become.

There is much celebration of the ruthless certainty of Lady Thatcher's style of leadership - leadership that was exercised in the face of public hostility, political opposition and indeed, contrary to the views of many in her own party. Strong leaders are often warned that, if they don't take care of their supporters, they may look behind and find that there are none. It happened to her eventually. So is it nostalgia for the red meat of no-holds-barred adversarial politics, domestic and foreign, that is being evoked by her death?

Lady Thatcher identified and kept her loyal followers. She was already, when she became prime minister in 1979, tuned in to the aspirations of the British middle class, and those who wanted to enter it; it took New Labour seven years after she had resigned to reclaim what it regarded as its own natural constituency. There can be no doubt that she moved British politics to a new centre ground, although the boundaries of this territory remain highly contested. Because most of the time the three main parties are jockeying for the lead on this crowded terrain, our politics is now conducted less in Technicolor, and more in a softer focus with a great deal more attention to what people say they want, as opposed to what one leader believed, and sometimes uniquely knew, they would like. The consequence of this close attention to the nation's expressed preferences is, paradoxically, an almost unprecedented level of disengagement from, and disbelief in, politicians' ability to make people's lives better.

Lady Thatcher famously observed that women had to "show [men] that we're better than they are". This was not the feminism which promotes diversity in a world of women's frequently unrealised talent, where women at work juggle the competing, sometimes almost irresolvable, demands of work, parenthood and caring. She was, for sure, a great woman in a man's world, but she did it by beating them at their own game. She was no feminist icon, nor any role model for the many young women who, we must hope, will believe strongly enough in the decent power of politics to bring about change, that they're prepared to give it a go.

In terms of domestic politics, it is now clear that Lady Thatcher's determined but focused scepticism about the trend of European centralisation has metastasised into a fanatical anti-Europeanism which, in its incarnation in Ukip, seems to be posing a growing electoral threat to the very party she led to triumph in three elections; it is now dangerously divided. There was actually always something of the little Englander in this undeniably great Briton, and it is one of the ironies of history that her legacy may well be to confuse a narrow nationalism with patriotism to the long term detriment of a strong Britain in an interdependent world.