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Thatcher’s legacy disputed, even in her hometown

Stephen Beard Dec 30, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: Well in case you thought Hollywood was going to wrap up the year without releasing a biopic about a powerful British leader, check your local movie theater listings for today’s opener: “The Iron Lady.” It’s about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. The movie has gotten mixed reviews.

And so has the Iron Lady herself — more than 20 years after leaving office. In the U.K., they’re still arguing about the economic changes Margaret Thatcher brought.

We sent our London correspondent Stephen Beard to Thatcher’s hometown of Grantham in the British Midlands to see how people feel about her now.

Stephen Beard: As a girl, Margaret Thatcher lived above this modest shop in Grantham. It was her father’s grocery store. These days, it’s a clinic for alternative medicine.

Receptionist Lorraine takes visitors upstairs to show them the private quarters.

Lorraine: This is her bedroom.

Beard: So this where the future Prime Minister of England had her bedroom?

Lorraine: Yeah, yeah.

Beard: She looked out of that window?

Lorraine: Yeah she did.

This is not a shrine. In fact, there’s nothing in this small, dingy room to connect it with the former — now famous — inhabitant, Margaret Thatcher.

Local conservative politician Ray Wootten.

Ray Wootten: All you will see is a small rectangular plaque above the shop where Mrs. Thatcher lived. Apart from that, there’s nothing at all in Grantham to say that she was from here.

He’s called for a statue of Grantham’s most famous daughter. He wants it to be erected alongside an existing statue of the town’s most famous son: the man who discovered gravity, Isaac Newton.

Wootten says Thatcher allowed people to defy gravity and rise above their humble origins.

Wootten: She made Britain a fairer place to live in. A country, where regardless of your background, you can actually get on, have opportunities to succeed in life.

Thatcher shook up the British economy, curbed labor union power and pushed the free market. She bulldozed her way through all opposition, earning herself some enemies back here in her industrial hometown.

Tony Smith: Dictator is what I call her. Dangerous woman.

Beard: You weren’t a supporter?

Smith: No! Very unpopular woman in this town I would say, on the whole.

Ursula Brown: I’d rather Grantham was known for Isaac Newton than for Margaret Thatcher. Her economic policy as is shown now was totally wrong.

That’s Ursula Brown. She believes that Thatcher ruined the British economy because she withdrew state aid from manufacturing, while promoting financial services.

Brown: All the manufacturing industry has been much reduced. And the banking and financial services — it’s terrible what they are doing.

Thatcher tried to cut the size of the state. She sold off many state-owned assets like water and power companies, claiming their services would be delivered more efficiently in the private sector.

They’re certainly more expensive, says local Labour Councillor Ian Selby.

Ian Selby: We’ve got electricity bills going up — astronomical increases: 20, 30 percent increases in some of these.

Beard: And you blame that on Margaret Thatcher?

Selby: It was her that sold off these utilities!

Of course Margaret Thatcher does have her supporters, like Hilda Newbury.

Hilda Newbury: No I think she was good for Britain. She stood up to the unions. I can remember the days when we had blackouts with the electricity being cut off and things like that. She stopped all that.

Beard: She was a very controversial figure, though, wasn’t she?

Newbury: She was a woman. She wouldn’t stand any nonsense.

But that apparently did not endear her to most people here. A local paper asked its readers what they would like to see displayed at a prominent site in the town: a bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher or an antique steamroller. Eighty-five percent voted for the steamroller.

In Grantham, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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