Like her nation's overwhelming centuries' old imperial past, there are multiple ways of viewing Prime Minister Thatcher's actions.
Ask people which empire in all of recorded history was the largest, and see what they say. The British Empire beats them all by far, at one time comprising nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth and about a quarter of its population up until the post-World War II era in the last century.
Name the location: all North America; British West Indies; Egypt, and much of the rest of the Middle East and elsewhere in North and sub-Saharan Africa; Australia and New Zealand; Hong Kong; the former Burma, Ceylon, and the Indian sub-continent and its environs; islands off of South America; etc. and so forth - not to mention the earlier forced acquisition and consolidation of the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish peoples' lands.
His and Her Majesties' realm dwarfed all others, and despite many of the Brits' former possessions now having attained independence, the legacy of that imperial experience is still very much with those former subjects today, and impacts on much of the rest of us as well.
The late 19th century poem by Rudyard Kipling, speaking of the White Man's Burden, sums much of this up nicely. While addressing America's new dabbling in such enterprise after its war with Spain, it was indeed originally written with Great Britain in mind.
With this as background, let's turn now to just a few events which transpired during the Iron Lady's days as Prime Minister.
A few years into Thatcher's administration, in 1982, Argentina once again was peeved at the audacity of British imperial and colonial policies, which had resulted in its grabbing islands a few hundred miles off the Argentine coast.
Almost 8,000 miles away from Great Britain, Las Malvinas--aka, the Falkland Islands--were perceived as an affront to Argentina. Imagine, for example, the latter staking claim to the Isle of Wight or the Hebrides off "Great Britain", that is Scotland's coast.
After the Argentine invasion, the Iron Lady's Brits went to war to re-conquer the islands in the name of British national interests, almost a third of the circumference of the world away from home.
Turn the clock back now to the days of the June ("Six Day") 1967 War in the Middle East. And, to really understand the point, we have to go back even further, to the break-up, after World War I, of the Ottoman Turkish Empire which controlled much of region for some four centuries.
The British made a lot of conflicting promises to lots of different groups during those days.
Giving them the benefit of the doubt -- and going beyond those who would call them neo-colonial, trying-to-remain-in-control policies, there was also a sincere feeling, in some circles, that long-suppressed, different peoples should at long last get a taste of freedom and independence:
"Arabia for the Arabs, Judea for the Judeans (Jews), Armenia for the Armenians, and Kurdistan for the Kurds" was one way of expressing this view, and President Woodrow Wilson's famous "Fourteen Points" emphasized this as well.
That view often clashed with the opinions of those running the British Foreign Office.
So as not to anger Arabs, for example, the Brits, whose imperial navy had recently switched from coal to oil, reneged on promises to the Kurds--currently some 35 million truly stateless people who pre-dated Arabs by millennia in the Mandate of Mesopotamia.
After receiving a favorable decision from the League of Nations regarding the northern oil fields in 1925, London supported only Arab nationalist interests in what would soon become a united Arab Iraq instead. Specially designed British Hawker-Hunter (anti-guerilla) attack aircraft took care of the Arabs' Kurdish headaches afterwards.
A few years earlier, the Brits were involved in similar imperial shenanigans.
While Jews had earlier been promised that they would be able to live throughout Britain's' other, smaller Mandate of Palestine, in 1922, almost 80% of the land was handed over to Arab nationalism instead. Transjordan was thus virtually severed from the remaining 20% of the original April 25, 1920 Mandate of Palestine territory while still technically being a part of the Mandate, until gaining independence in 1946.
Led and formed by the British Sir John Bagot Glubb ("Glubb Pasha"), Transjordan's Arab Legion seized lands west of the Jordan River in its attack on a minuscule reborn Israel in 1948 and, now holding territory on both banks, soon renamed itself Jordan.
Note please, that the conquest of Judea and Samaria (only recently being dubbed the "West Bank") by Jordan was an illegal occupation of non-apportioned (not Arab) territory in the Mandate, and no nations besides Pakistan and the British themselves recognized this.
Having been blockaded at the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba by Egypt and shelled by the Jordanians a bit later (casus belli), when Israel took the land in its war for survival in 1967, it was thus taking it from an illegal occupier.
In his book upon which the movie, Iron Lady, is based, John Campbell refers to and/or insinuates that Israel's defensive actions in Judea and Samaria amounted to the illegal acquisition of "Palestinian" lands. It's hard to tell whether those words in his book are his own thoughts or are actually those of the Iron Lady. Either way, they're simply wrong.
The disputed lands in question were indeed non-apportioned, and all of the Mandate's residents were allowed to live there, not just Arabs. Much, if not most, of the area was state land, and Jews had lived and owned property there until they were slaughtered by Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s. Transjordan officially made the territories Judenrein (as it created itself) after 1948.
Again, the Brits are a mixed blessing on all of these matters, wavering back and forth between issues of real politik and just reasoning. And the Iron Lady was no exception, despite her relative friendliness to Israel compared to what is coming out of her nation these days.
Thatcher's Britain--which could fight Argentina 8,000 miles from home in the name of Her Majesty's national ( if not imperial) interests--would constantly press Israel to return the "territories" used to launch attacks against it and to which Jews (unlike the Brits on the Falklands) have thousands of years of connecting history.
A Great Britain, which acquired territories and conquered peoples all around the globe while grabbing their natural resources for its own good as well, saw and still sees no trouble complaining about an allegedly "expansionist" Israel which, having been repeatedly attacked by Arabs who want it destroyed, says it needs to become something beyond the nine-to fifteen mile wide sub-rump state that it was left as after 1949.
In fact, it needs the very territorial compromise the British Foreign Secretary, as will be discussed below, had promised Israel just a bit earlier himself.
"Land for peace" became the constant lecture even from the friendly Iron Lady…even though it was quite clear to all with eyes open and neurons intact that the only "peace" the vast majority of Arabs had in mind for Israel was the peace of the grave--regardless of its size.
What makes this all the more confusing is that it was an earlier British Foreign Secretary, Lord Caradon, serving as chief architect of the final draft of UNSC Resolution 242 in the aftermath of the June 1967 War, who deliberately built in a territorial compromise over the disputed territories so that Israel would, at long last, get more secure, defensible, and real political borders.
This was to be instead of the armistice lines imposed upon it in 1949 after the combined Arab invasion the year before. Those lines, I repeat, had left Israel a mere 9-15 miles wide at its waist, where most of its population and industry were concentrated, an irresistible temptation to its rejectionist enemies.
These are the Iron Lady's colleague, Lord Caradon's, very words on the subject:
"It would have been wrong to demand Israel return to positions of June 4, 1967 … those positions were … artificial … just places where soldiers of each side happened to be on the day fighting stopped in 1948 … just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand Israelis return to them."
With this in mind, Jews would obviously have to repopulate areas in Judea and Samaria in which they indeed had lived earlier for millennia. Until the Jordanians destroyed numerous synagogues and cemeteries, this included East Jerusalem as well, the location of Judaism's holiest of sites, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.
To realize what 242 promised--territorial compromise--it's a no brainer, as my students would say, that Jews would have to actually live on the land. So it is hard to fathom this next alleged statement from Thatcher in 1980 recorded in a secret diplomatic cable written by Ambassador John Robinson on May 4th 1980:
"Efforts to convince (Prime Minister) Mr. Begin that his West Bank policy was absurd, and that there should not be Israeli settlements on the West Bank, had failed to move him… His response was that Judea and Samaria had been Jewish in biblical times and that they should therefore be so today."
To her credit, however, she also made the following statement on page 246 in her book, Statecraft:
"Israel must never be expected to jeopardize her security: if she was ever foolish enough to do so, and then suffered for it, the backlash against both honest brokers and Palestinians would be immense - 'land for peace' must also bring peace."
It is worth noting that the Minutes of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations and other solid documentation show that the vast majority of Arabs were newcomers into the Mandate themselves, Arabs settlers setting up Arab settlements in Palestine.
So many Arabs were recent arrivals--settlers--themselves that UNRWA, had to change the definition of "refugee" from its prior meaning of persons normally and traditionally resident, to those who fled from a place they lived in for a minimum of only two years prior to 1948.
And there was no special agency set up to help numerically more Jewish refugees, fleeing so-called "Arab" lands, than Arabs who were fleeing in the opposite direction due to a war which Arabs started over Israel's rebirth.
While the Iron Lady is missed these days for her relative fairness towards Israel, besides the troubling example above, there were some other episodes as well - like when she joined American political leaders, such as George H.W. Bush, James Baker, and others (and most of the rest of the world) in condemning Israel's surgical destruction of Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Just imagine if Saddam had the bomb when he went invaded Kuwait, went to war with Iran, and so forth.
Working non-stop on behalf of freedom for the Soviet Union's Jewish refuseniks, she then made the leap, however, comparing them to allegedly "stateless" Arab refugees. The plight of the latter was mostly a self-inflicted wound…that of the former was not.Arabs already had one state created for them in the lions' share of the Palestine Mandate -- Jordan. They were not "stateless." Arabs also refused another proposed partition plan in 1947 which would have given them about half of the 20% that was left of the area that was supposed to have been the Jewish homeland. 90% was not enough for them because Jews were entitled to nothing in this vision of "justice"--the same subjugating Arab mindset which victimizes scores of millions of other non-Arab peoples in the region as well.
No doubt, it's disappointing when leaders, like the Iron Lady, fail to see such differences.
On the overall balance sheet, however, and despite the above and other "flaws" (ask the Irish), when judging world leaders, the world would be a better place if Margaret Thatcher was still in her office at 10 Downing Street.