It is well known that when Baronness Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Britain from 1979-1990, she was called the Iron Lady. As Theresa May unveils her new cabinet and begins to set an agenda in the post-David Cameron era, I cannot help but wonder if we are watching the birth of a second “Iron Lady”, and what would that mean for New Zealand?
To be clear first, about how Baronness Thatcher become the “Iron Lady”, we should look briefly at what she did. To the Tories, she was a darling who took a hard line foreign policy against the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. She took Britain to war against Argentina in 1982 despite having scrapped the only aircraft carrier Britain had, which was won with some difficulty. Her economic policies included the privatization of state owned enterprises, the deregulation of the financial markets and the influence of the unions reined in. Mrs Thatcher
To others though, especially Labour and left-leaning Britons of non-Labourite persuasion, she was a total anathema. Such was their disgust with her attitude and policies that when she passed away in 2013, there was a massive surge in requests for “Ding Dong the Witch is dead” on British radio. Her reputation stemmed from a steadfast adherence to deeply conservative values and a matching disdain for anyone who disagreed with her – coal miners, women rights activists, minorities. It does have to be said though that Mrs Thatcher was initially concerned about potential climate change and environmental issues, which is reflected in her effort to put issues of acid rain, general pollution and climate change in front of the British public.
Overnight Mrs May unveiled her new Cabinet. In a clear signal of her intent to depart from Mr Cameron’s centre-right and move into solidly conservative policy making, Mrs May has:
- handed Boris Johnson, the flamboyant former Mayor of London and pro-Brexit campaigner the Foreign Secretary role – to a chorus of French and German derision
- Abolished the climate change portfolio, suggesting she is a denier
- Handed the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a man who is purportedly a tax dodger
Over time New Zealand shall see whether or not Mrs May’s new Cabinet is good for us or not. Britain is entering an era where many of its international agreements may need to be renegotiated. However it also presents great opportunities for a rekindling of the strong relationship we had with Britain prior to it joining the European Union where trade opportunities, reconfiguration of visas for New Zealanders heading to the United Kingdom and potential opportunities for development of tourism ties.
But what if the Commonwealth is not a priority for Mrs May? What if she decides that chasing the best possible deal for Britain outside of the E.U. (which she should be doing anyway), is a higher priority than a collection of nations that Britain used to be the colonial ruler of? If Scotland decided to leave the United Kingdom because of the Brexit vote, would Mrs May be able to contain the fallout and what implications would that have for New Zealanders in Scotland? Some of her new appointees come loaded with ideological baggage including restoring the death penalty, which may put Britain offside with the New Zealand Government and perceptions that New Zealanders have of the United Kingdom.
I see both opportunities and obstacles in the road ahead. If New Zealand can navigate the obstacles, I think the rewards will be worth the effort. But if we cannot, then rocky times are ahead.