Argentina’s farewell to Margaret Thatcher

Reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political.


On 11 April 2013, we were informed that Margaret Thatcher had passed away at the age of 87. In the city of Buenos Aires, my new home of one month, the news wasn’t greeted by carnivals, street parties or funfair. On the other hand, it certainly did not go unnoticed. It is true that for many, she continues to symbolize the loss of the Falkland Islands, 649 Argentine soldiers and a sense of national pride. Some people, especially those who have direct links to a Falklands veteran, viewed her as a tyrannical dictator akin to the likes of Stalin or Hitler. To others she was cast the part of a "baddie" in a story which sees Argentina the victims against an intransigent tyrant. In both cases her death was accompanied by a strong to mild sense of justice. Young people especially, who seem more politically engaged here than in the UK, often participating in political protests in the capital city, had little or no problem broadcasting this point of view.

In the days following her death, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter were hosts to a handful of barely censored results, such as "Good Riddance!", which explicitly conveyed the feeling that  the "Iron Lady" will not be missed in this part of the world. To add to matters, her passing closely followed the Malvinas War Memorial Day on 2 April on which Argentines gathered to remember the veterans of the war as well as the determination of civilians who had offered time and resources to further the war effort. For some, the Memorial Day, celebrated only three weeks ago, heightened emotion surrounding Thatcher’s death and the desire to see the Falklands restored to Argentina.

On the other hand, there are many Argentines who believe that the demise of the junta military dictatorship, which Thatcher opposed, led to the first signs of democracy in Argentina. In 1983 the junta military dictatorship commanded by General Galtieri, surrendered power a year after war ended. They seem grateful to Thatcher for her courage in deploying the British Army to face General Galtieri, who was removed from power within days of the start of the war. It is safe to say that I have not encountered many people who harbour a deep-seated hatred towards her or expressed unashamed joy at the news. Even on the radio stations no more than a few moderate, predictable comments were made about her character and a questionable song or two played in her "honour" including "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead". Over the following days it became apparent that, to the man in the street, Margaret Thatcher herself did not pose the problem but rather the wrongful ownership of the Falklands to which she is inextricably linked. As such, reactions to her death quickly turned from the personal to the political. "Las Malvinas son Argentinas" (The Falklands belong to Argentina) was the sentiment that was renewed daily - one which the government began to propagate anew.

Equally, there are Argentines who reacted with indifference to the news and to whom Margaret Thatcher represents nothing other than a difficult period in history and a futile on-going conflict. Their perspective is that the islands have caused so many problems at this point that it is about time they became a separate, self-governing entity with ties to neither country. Other people I have spoken to seem to express more antipathy towards Britain and her people rather than Margaret Thatcher.

It is interesting is that the Argentine government has not as yet issued an official statement or expressed their sympathies to Thatcher’s family. The foreign secretary, Hector Timerman, has recently asserted that the decision of Thatcher’s children not to invite the Argentine president was an unnecessary provocation at a time when "the family should have sought to ensure peace". Nevertheless, the government’s response to this seemed to suggest a nonchalant lack of desire to be invited in the first place. While some politicians refused to comment directly on her death, perhaps wishing to remain diplomatic, several newspapers here including those known to be heavily censored by the government did not avoid printing explicit headlines such as "The Iron Lady sunk" and "Galtieri awaits her in hell". The latter refers to General Galtieri, thus illustrating how some Argentines attribute equal blame to both the contemporary Argentine military leader and the British prime minister. Politicians continue to debate the approach and subsequent methods President Cristina Kirchner and her administration are adopting to address the Falklands issue (in terms of speech content and dialogue with David Cameron). However, they do agree unequivocally on the message to be conveyed to Argentines and the rest of the world: serious talks are required to return the Falklands back to their rightful owners. 


Margaret Thatcher meets personnel aboard the HMS Antrim in 1983. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.