Hard Reality: Only A Fool Advocates “Banning” Nuclear Weapons

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that nuclear arms rank among the most destructive instruments of human ingenuity ever devised; there is no doubt that any global war involving their widespread use will either enslave the handful of survivors or be so lethal as to ensure there are none. The best possible intentions envisage a world without nuclear weapons, but the real world and its realities dictate that only a fool would ever attempt to realise such an objective.

I have been reading a story from the Fairfax press today, which reports on a meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima; this event was attended by the foreign ministers of 12 non-nuclear countries, and unsurprisingly featured survivors of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 as advocates for the outright banning of the possession of nuclear weapons worldwide.

Their call failed to elicit a commitment from the delegation to such an end; thank goodness it did.

I think nuclear weapons are horrific instruments of warfare; it is virtually impossible to use them without killing thousands — perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands — of innocent civilians every time such a bomb is deployed, even if the intended military or strategic target is destroyed.

I also generally believe that nuclear-armed nations should refrain from any first use of nuclear weapons.

There are exceptions: during the first Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush issued a barely veiled warning to Saddam Hussein that any use of chemical and/or biological weapons on Allied troops would elicit a nuclear response on Baghdad; in the wake of the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, many commentators (including me) openly advocated nuclear retaliation if the attacks could be conclusively linked to either a foreign government or state-sponsored terrorist attack (they couldn’t).

But these are rare (and thankfully isolated) instances of unprovoked aggression warranting a nuclear response that, fortunately, failed to materialise, and I contend that provided there is enough restraint on the part of nuclear-armed powers to refuse to be the first to launch, this at least is one safeguard against the prospect of general nuclear warfare that would decimate civilisation as we know it.

Where the equation starts to blur is around notions of deterrence and nuclear blackmail; the weapons don’t need to be actually used to either safeguard their owners from attack or to achieve sinister objectives under duress. I don’t even think lunatics like the regime in North Korea envisage nuclear retaliation for an unprovoked atomic attack raining down upon it with any relish; it is fair to say that even the most hardened despots find the prospect of their own nuclear annihilation abhorrent, even if their regard for that of others is cavalier at best. Thus, the irony is that it is on the very questions of deterrence and blackmail that the root of the debate over nuclear arms resides.

The conference in Japan to which the Fairfax report pertains — staged, as it was, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine — even noted that the Russian action may not have occurred had Ukraine not ceded the nuclear arsenal it inherited upon the collapse of the USSR back to Russia in 1992: I’d say it’s a very fair assumption to make, given nobody would have intervened in the interests of either side had a localised Russia-Ukraine nuclear exchange erupted over Crimea. (Yes, I am aware of the issue of fallout such a regional conflict would impose on surrounding countries. My point is that those countries and their allies would hardly worsen the problem by inviting the spread of the conflict itself onto their soil).

Whilst that scenario is obviously a hypothetical one, a live version of it was played out early last decade between belligerently nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; these are countries whose religiously based hatreds run deep, and whose military planners for a long time viewed nuclear weaponry as simply the latest — and most potent — thing to lob at each other should they return to a state of war, most notably over the disputed border region of Kashmir.

At the time, wiser heads prevailed upon both sides to cool the tensions that led perilously close to war. But the undercurrents that remain could as easily be stirred anew: shortly after the last explosive crisis was defused more than a decade ago, India’s nationalist, right-wing BJP government was defeated by the Centrist Congress Party; that wheel has now turned full circle, with the BJP expected to return to office in a landslide in elections underway as we speak after two terms in the wilderness. And Pakistan is hardly a country noted for its stability or security, and in which a hardline military junta could seize power at any time — just as it did in 1999. Unlike the hypothetical Eurasian scenario, the variables in this regional powderkeg remain just as volatile, and heavily armed with nuclear weapons to boot.

One of the reasons there is no serious talk of military assistance to Ukraine and against Russian aggression is because Western powers know it is action they cannot take: nuclear-armed Russia might respond by engaging in conventional warfare. But there is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t select the nuclear response available to him, either.

I can hear my critics. Doesn’t all of this speak for — rather than against — the abolition of nuclear weapons?

Margaret Thatcher once said (of a proposal by President Gorbachev for the USA and the USSR to unilaterally disarm, which Ronald Reagan contemplated agreeing to) that you could no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you could “disinvent” dynamite: from her perspective, which was that of the Anglo-American alliance, if others had them, then Britain and the US must have them as well.

She was absolutely right, much to the horror of the CND activists who momentarily believed their wildest dreams would come true.

For one thing, for the abolition (or banning, elimination, whatever you want to call it) of nuclear weapons to be feasible, there must be trust among the stakeholders involved; I point directly to the Kremlin, noting that the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine — whilst not involving nuclear weapons, or at least, not yet — are evidence enough of the repercussions in such situations where one side simply disregards the imperatives of the other.

Does anyone seriously think that if Russia agreed to unilaterally destroy its nuclear arsenal that it would honour the deal? It might permit international inspectorates to monitor the dismantling of x number of warheads. But Russia — not to put too fine a point on things — has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Who would risk the security of the entire free world on a potentially empty promise from its government?

For another, there are those states that either refuse to officially confirm the existence of their nuclear arms (Israel) or refuse to sign instruments aimed at the control of nuclear weapons and curbing their proliferation (India, Pakistan, North Korea). North Korea in particular is unlikely to ever voluntarily surrender what limited number of warheads it possesses; it also has a recent history of being led by lunatics hellbent on inciting anti-US hatred among its population. A denuclearised America would face the very real prospect of a North Korean container ship being sailed into San Francisco Harbour, and…kaboom.

It is well known that China’s military mischief in recent years — principally over matters of disputed territory that it pushes claims over with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam — have been constantly ratcheted up and underpinned by the nuclear muscle to settle any or all of them at a stroke if required; one of the realities that constrains China from doing so is the fact Uncle Sam would retaliate in kind and in such a fashion that there simply wouldn’t be a China (a scenario which also raises — depending on whose version of geopolitical allegiances you listen to — the prospect of Russia coming to China’s aid against the US).

In all of these cases, the very existence of nuclear weapons on one side of a given equation is a balance and a restraint on the other from using its own. It isn’t an ideal situation by any stretch. But it has prevented nuclear conflict since World War II, and certainly since the USSR achieved an offensive atomic capability of its own to match the United States in 1949.

And there is no guarantee whatsoever that the scenario regularly presented by the younger President Bush — that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists, whether sold by a rogue government or stolen, that can then be used against countries like the USA and its allies — will never happen. In fact, an international disposal operation of tens of thousands of warheads would increase the likelihood of precisely that occurring, given the heightened difficulties in accounting for every warhead during such a massive undertaking, and verifying and documenting the dismantling and destruction of their components.

We’ve only touched on a handful of the world’s hotspots and the hypothetical scenarios and permutations they conjure up. There is no shortage of others. But to fundamentally alter the uneasy nuclear balance that has evolved over almost 70 years is, to my mind, to fundamentally undermine international security and heighten — not eliminate — the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack occurring somewhere in the world.

Do I deny the risk of nuclear accidents? Of course I don’t.

Do I deny the possibility of a sneak nuclear attack occurring as things stand? Of course not.

Do I deny the horrific suffering inflicted on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945? Of course I don’t.

And — except for the attacks in New York in 2001 — I don’t think any of the world’s conflicts since 1945 should have been settled using nuclear weapons; 2001 is a moot point, as there was no identifiable enemy against whom to retaliate in such a tangible fashion.

(And anti-Iraq War people: don’t read more into that than it says at face value; Hussein had to be overthrown and the US was right to do it, even if the “intelligence” provided by the Blair government that justified the operation subsequently proved to be largely incorrect).

Even if the eight known nuclear-armed countries pledged to irreversibly dispose of their nuclear arsenals (and even if, by some miracle, North Korea actually did it) there are three considerations that cannot be discounted, and the existence of any of them should be a bar at least to our friends in the US and the UK, in our interests and theirs, from dismantling their arsenals.

1. Someone might hold out: someone might retain a “secret stash.” It’s not impossible by any stretch.

2. Someone else might have nukes and/or sell them to stateless third parties who then act independently to launch against a disarmed Western country stripped of the deterrent of the US-UK nuclear umbrella.

And (most importantly) 3. Destroy the warheads by all means, but the technology would still exist. There are already those, such as rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who have proliferated this technology to North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and God alone knows who else. The knowledge is too widespread to be wiped from existence, and too valuable not to be preserved. It will always exist. Any belief to the contrary is, frankly, so intellectually negligent as to defy belief. And for as long as it exists, the threat posed by nuclear weaponry will exist as well.

The “goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” is a noble one, but it can never happen: in this vein, the foreign ministers at the Hiroshima conference were right to resist the call to ban nuclear weaponry outright, and it is a matter of some small mercy that its recommendation to ban the production of “fissile material for nuclear weapons” will carry so little weight as to never be enacted.

In Fairyland, there will never be nuclear war. In the real world, the prospect of it can never be entirely discounted. The hard, cold reality is that deterrence is a better option than a state of disarmed helplessness. Only a fool would suggest the latter is in any way preferable.

 

 

Weekend Viewing Ahead Of Discussion On Industry Protection

IN READYING to write an article on the imminent departure of General Motors from Australian automotive manufacturing, it has taken some time to locate a tiny piece of footage I wish to use; today I post with some excellent viewing for readers to enjoy over the coming weekend, with the discussion on Holden to follow shortly.

I think we are about to open a subject that will feature prominently over the next few years: that of “subsidies” for Australia’s car manufacturing sector, which I believe is a curtain-raiser to the wider issue of protectionist economics in 21st century Australia from an overall perspective.

And I intend — in this column — to cover both the issues of the moment as they arise, as well as commencing a discussion about the bigger problem of tariffs, subsidies, and other market-distorting forms of protectionist activity and how, in the longer run, they damage Australia’s economy and cost this country and the people in it far more than any good intended of them.

In short, tearing a scab off a pustulous wound. The first cab off the rank — as soon as tomorrow — will be Holden, which will announce it will cease building cars in Australia, possibly before I even have time to write the intended article on it.

In truth, I would be posting that discussion now; it has, however, taken a couple of hours’ searching for a brief segment of video that I wish to use in that article, and it seems obvious to share not just the programme it is to be quoted from, but the series in its entirety — and a little extra material as well.

It will surprise few that on this subject I’m influenced to a degree by Thatcherite policy doctrines; not those of Thatcher herself, but those of the figures who most influenced her own economic philosophies — in this case, a British politician, intellectual and statesman, Sir Keith Joseph.

And it follows therefore that the material I am posting here today is of the Thatcher era: a series of documentaries on Margaret’s time in office, up to her departure from Downing Street in late 1990.

The problem in tracking this stuff down is that the only copy I have at home is a 20-year-old VHS copy, made at the time of the series’ release in 1994; a DVD copy made some years ago apparently failed to survive a residential move.

YouTube to the rescue: readers can view the episodes sequentially here, here, here and here. Each runs for an hour, so — as I said — it might be a case of weekend viewing. My thanks to Thatcheritescot (himself an occasional commenter in this column) for posting these videos on YouTube for public review.

Whilst only a three-minute segment will be quoted in the first anti-protectionism article I’ve got coming — focused on Holden — I do still think many viewers will get something out of watching the programmes included in these links; they give a fair but critical assessment of Thatcher’s time in office, with extremely generous access provided by those of her colleagues who were surviving at the time the documentaries were made.

Of course, Lady Thatcher herself — along with many of the former Thatcher cabinet ministers appearing in these videos — have since passed on.

For those not familiar with Keith Joseph or his writings at all…where do we start on that topic? The man was a colossus, towering above most of his contemporaries in the intellectual sense, and viewed posthumously his legacy shames most of those who pass for political leaders nowadays on the Left or the Right, in the UK, or in Australia (and further afield) too, for that matter.

There is a reasonable memorial lecture viewers may like to view here, although as I said Joseph is a formidable subject in his own right…we could be here for days or weeks just discussing Joseph!

As I said at the outset, this post is simply to get some material for readers to view if they choose in advance of a post on Holden in the next day or two.

If this kind of material is valuable/stimulating/useful/of topical interest to readers, let me know by way of comment — I am happy to include more such reference material in this column if the demand for it among the readership is there.

 

Able Archer: 30 Years On From Nuclear Near-Miss

SPARE A THOUGHT for the nuclear Armageddon that so nearly, yet inadvertently, destroyed civilisation 30 years ago; a routine military exercise at a time of heightened cold war tensions, this day in 1983, came dangerously close to triggering a colossal Soviet strike on the USA and Western Europe.

I thought it appropriate to note the 30-year anniversary of Operation Able Archer given its significance as a turning point in the Cold War, and representing as it did the time at which the world arguably came closer to devastating nuclear wipeout than at any other.

To some extent, the same issues are pertinent in the world today: thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, with a window of mere minutes for a nuclear-armed nation under apparent attack to assess the threat and strike back.

Then, as now, it represents the potential for miscalculation,with catastrophic consequences.

The world, obviously, has changed; yet in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Russia — depending on who you listen to — is a nuclear threat, either due to rearmament and modification of its nuclear arsenal and a determination to reclaim the international strength and prestige of superpower status, or because of ageing and decrepit missile and control systems that are increasingly susceptible to malfunction or accidental launch.

The USA — on President Obama’s watch, at least — seems determined to realise further steep cuts in the number of strategic nuclear warheads that remain actively deployed on high alert. Yet there is little concrete evidence to suggest America’s moves in this area are reciprocated by Russia, and in any case, stories of demoralised US nuclear forces have also found their way into the international media over the past few years.

And of course, there are the “rising threats” posed by other nations and rogue states who have either acquired nuclear weapons capability or seek imminently to do so: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, for instance, all deepen the complexity of the nuclear equation and add to the general instability posed by nuclear weapons in a multipolar world.

The point of this post isn’t to scare anyone, or even to make a case for or agin when it comes to the world’s nuclear armaments. Rather, at what is unquestionably a significant time in the modern history of the world, I seek merely to note, and to commemorate.

To this end, just a single reference: a very good documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the UK a few years ago, dealing specifically with Able Archer, but which also provides a fascinating glimpse into the international politics and threats of the day — particularly where nuclear weapons and the politics of the Cold War are concerned.

For those unfamiliar with the background and nature of the Operation Able Archer exercises, this article (although dating to 2007) should give a broad overview of what was involved and the international environment in which the exercises took place.

The thing that struck me most in reviewing Able Archer at the weekend wasn’t the near-miss the world had with a nuclear Armageddon in 1983; rather, it was the consideration that apparently restrained the USSR from launching an all-out attack: the memory of Russia’s ambush and invasion at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1941.

And whilst I have read extensively on Able Archer over the years (nuclear politics being a bit of a pet interest), it surprises me that fewer people know about it. Everyone knows of the weather satellite launch that confused a Russian radar crew in 1995 and saw then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin open his nuclear briefcase in readiness to retaliate against the strike that proved a false alarm, but relatively few people know about this.

I support the continuing deployment of a Western nuclear deterrent; as Margaret Thatcher once observed, you can no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you can “disinvent” dynamite, a reality that I believe really ought to be accorded greater consideration in the arms control and arms reduction politics of the present day.

And I note that 30 years on from the near-catastrophe of Able Archer, the present generation of world leaders is largely unrestrained by the atrocities of the second world war: certainly, we all know how that disastrous conflict played out, but the key international figures of 2013 are the children of those who witnessed it first-hand, whilst the WWII generation itself is, literally, dying — and their memories with them.

I hope readers enjoy the material I have linked to and, as ever, encourage those interested to seek additional reading and media on the innocuous, routine exercise that very nearly triggered a third world war 30 years ago today.

The Embryonic New Platform Of The Conservative Right

IT SOUNDS like the foundation for a good agenda: restore the death penalty; privatise the national broadcaster; stop unemployed immigrants claiming welfare; bring back national service; ban wearing the burqa in public; abolish the position of Deputy Prime Minister — and the salary it attracts.

Oh, and designate a public holiday in August as “Margaret Thatcher Day.”

Aside from those of us who love politics, very few people take more than a passing interest — and certainly most are unaware that just like Australia, the UK is governed by a coalition forged in the aftermath of an election result (2010) that produced a hung Parliament.

Unlike Australia, Britain’s ruling Coalition is between the Centre and the Right, rather than the Centre-Left and the hard Left, with Conservative Party leader David Cameron as Prime Minister and Nick Clegg — leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats — as his deputy.

Britain’s government, too, is deeply unpopular; but unlike Australia’s — accounting for the differences in electoral systems — the British government’s electoral position is dire, but by no means irretrievable.

And there are obvious similarities and differences that can be highlighted.

In what seems to be a lull in hostilities in Canberra, I wanted to post about two articles I have seen — you can read them here and here — outlining an “alternative manifesto” that a group of Conservative Party backbenchers has tabled in the House of Commons.

It’s not necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of British politics to follow my thoughts; after all, most readers will see parallels between their issues in this case, and ours.

The ruling Conservative Party is split, and arguably has been for 20 years; broadly, this split is over Europe — should we be in the EU, should we leave the EU, how much power should we cede to Brussels, and so on — with the Tory Right, or “Eurosceptics” on one side, and the “Europhiles” (and David Cameron) on the other.

But the split isn’t exclusively over Europe; on other policy measures the Conservatives have a right wing and a moderate wing, just as the Liberal Party does (the terms “wet” and “dry” that were used in Australia in the 1980s derive from the Tories), and the split between Right and Left is the subject of much debate over why the Conservatives failed to win a majority in 2010 in arguably the most conducive political conditions since 1987.

I hope readers will read both of the articles I have linked to; the item from The Guardian deals heavily with the issue of national service, and to me the case is compelling.

Unfortunately, when national service is discussed, it tends to evoke images of kids put into uniforms and marched around the place as a cheap substitute for willingly enlisted adults; the Guardian columnist Stephen Moss — who is clearly a fan of the idea, even if his distaste for the others is palpable — beautifully, if inadvertently, argues the case for it.

What a brilliant idea: school leavers getting two years’ paid work, and a grounding in the real world, before heading to university, vocational education, or a job? The benefit in terms of a residual boost to public services would be phenomenal. The idea that such service could be used as “credit” against university fees would be popular, as would — in some quarters — the cut in social security outgoings the program would realise over time.

And it would help to instil a culture of personal responsibility and obligation to society that, sadly, seems to have dissipated to a very large degree in recent times.

But there are other good ideas here that can equally apply in Australia that are relevant, topical, and can go some way to meet — variously — the political and social challenges and objectives in Australia today.

The restoration of the death penalty for strictly defined classes of offences is becoming a more popular idea in this country; certainly, it is timely to raise it in light of this week’s sentencing of Adrian Ernest Bayley — who viciously raped and murdered Melbourne woman Jill Meagher — to life in prison with a 35-year minimum term.

Whilst the sentence was harsher than some that have been doled out in recent years — and certainly harsher than Bayley previously received for his litany of past rape and assault offences against women — there are many, myself included, who feel it was too lenient.

So what if he pleaded guilty? The guy is a monster who previously told prison authorities that he fantasised about committing further crimes against women — and did so.

He is guilty beyond all doubt, not merely beyond reasonable doubt, which should be the test that must be satisfied for a judge to impose a capital sentence.

There are other topical examples, too; Hoddle Street mass murderer and vexatious litigant Julian Knight, nearing the expiry of the minimum term set for him upon conviction in 1987 for killing seven people and injuring another 19, now seeks a parole date.

And Port Arthur massacre perpetrator Martin Bryant, who callously gunned down 35 people, is still said to harbour the delusion he is a martyr when many people believe he should have been executed.

The debate over immigration — and the hysteria that accompanies it — has striking similarities with debate on the same issue in the UK, which has experienced a flood of migration from former Soviet satellite countries in eastern Europe in recent years, and an EU-mandated obligation to pay all of them welfare benefits if they are unable to find work.

This column has advocated the abolition of family reunion visas in favour of more skilled migration, and an increase in the humanitarian intake to accept more legitimate refugees arriving through legitimate channels.

This change to the immigration mix — coupled with measures to “stop the boats” (to use the ubiquitous phrase) — would see support for and confidence in the immigration program as a whole improve, and welfare outlays on unemployed migrants decrease.

The idea of a personal allowance (the tax-free threshold in Australia) that could be transferred within a marriage or civil union where a stay-at-home parent is a full-time carer for small children is an efficient and relatively cost-effective measure that could make a difference to millions of families in Australia — possibly in part as a trade-off for some of the existing taxation arrangements and benefits that are cumbersome, an administrative nightmare, and highly punitive in cases of overpayment.

The privatisation of the ABC is a no-brainer: not because of any accusations of bias, mind, but because it is — to coin a phrase from John Howard — a business in which the state should not exist. (The same can be said of Medibank and Australia Post).

And with a rather smug thought directed toward the current hopeless, hapless incumbent, the abolition of the position of Deputy Prime Minister is extremely appealing indeed.

Of course, we could go on.

But the point in raising all of this is twofold: one, these are new or reworked policy ideas that already enjoy significant public support, but are not on the statute books; and two, adopting some or all of them would provide a great deal of additional substance to the conservative government that seems certain to be elected in the next few months.

In closing — with an eye back on Britain, and as an ex-supporter of David Cameron — it is abundantly clear that the reason for the low esteem in which the British government is held has nothing to do with a preference for the Labour Party: there isn’t one.

Rather, a new leader (sound familiar?) with a commitment to Conservative ideas and values — to say nothing of listening to the mood of the public — might well adopt many of these measures, and in so doing find the prospect of an outright majority in 2015 well within reach.

But these are the type of things I think should be put on the table in Australia, too; not dismissed against “treaty obligations” or the objections of those who yell the loudest just because they can yell, but talked through rationally, civilly, and then implemented.

Oh, and the public holiday for Margaret Thatcher? Certainly. But only in the UK.

Margaret Thatcher Funeral And Tribute

LIKE millions of viewers across the world, I watched the funeral of Baroness Thatcher this evening, Melbourne time; it was a remarkable celebration of a remarkable life, and as regular readers will know I am very upset indeed by the event of Mrs Thatcher’s passing last week, aged 87.

At some point in the next few days, I will be posting a tribute to Mrs Thatcher on this site.

It won’t be a regular post in the sense that we pick apart a topic, with an opinion piece augmented by discussion and viewpoints from readers.

The format will be media clippings: photographs and video snippets from Mrs Thatcher’s career; some well-known and others rather less so, as well as some comment from myself where I feel it is warranted.

Those who love and/or admire Mrs T will enjoy the tribute; even those who detest the lady — let’s face it, people loved her or hated her — may find some wry amusement in the material I am assembling as well.

As one of the true conservative icons of the 20th century, Mrs Thatcher’s death is a historic event; as a truly great leader, both at home and upon the world stage, she was a significant figure who deserves to be honoured, and remembered.

I have deliberately avoided posting this piece until the public funereal service had been concluded; readers should expect to see the tribute to Mrs Thatcher appear in this column by the weekend at the very latest.

Vale, Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013): A Leader For Her Time

THEY THOUGHT THE GROCER’S DAUGHTER, Margaret Thatcher once said — speaking of the disdainful regard in which her aristocratic male colleagues held her — didn’t really know how things were done. But, she added, they also knew that they simply didn’t have it within themselves to see things through.

OBITUARY

With the death this morning (GMT) of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain has lost one of its most significant political figures of the 20th century, and its greatest postwar Prime Minister; the UK’s prestige and reputation in the world was restored by Thatcher after decades of decline, and the changes she enacted in Britain have proven more durable than anyone could have foreseen upon her election to office in 1979.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher LG OM PC FRS, née Roberts (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013) won the 1979 election in Great Britain with a simple objective: to reverse Britain’s decline.

Britain’s first female Prime Minister faced obstacles in the form of some of her own colleagues within the Conservative Party, over and above those any Conservative leader would face when attempting to effect significant change; and in the end, these were by far the more potent threat to her ability to complete what she saw as her mission in politics.

Thatcher — the lower middle class daughter of a grocer from Grantham, married to a successful and wealthy businessman — entered the House of Commons as Member for the London constituency of Finchley in 1959; a scientist and lawyer by profession, she was described in the parliamentary handbook’s “new members” section as “the mother of twins.”

After backbench stints in government before 1964 and in opposition following the Labour win at that year’s election, Thatcher experienced rapid promotion; upon the return of the Conservative Party to government in 1970 under Edward Heath, she became Secretary of State for Education.

It was in this role — charged with finding reductions in expenditure — she gained the unwanted moniker “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” after cutting the free milk program for school children aged 7 to 11. She later wrote: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”

But Heath’s government was doomed; oil shocks that reverberated across the Western world in the early 1970s, along with a miners’ strike which determinedly sought to bring a Tory government down, found their mark. Ted Heath narrowly lost two elections in 1974, with the second (in October) resulting in a wafer-slim but outright majority for Labour.

After the loss, Thatcher challenged Heath for the party’s leadership in 1975; Heath failed to obtain the number of votes required under Conservative Party rules on the first ballot and withdrew, and Thatcher defeated his preferred successor, Willie Whitelaw, on the second.

Yet from that point on, sections of the Tory Party refused to accept her legitimacy as leader; some felt she would prove a mere stopgap, whilst others believed the Tories would be consigned to at least two terms in opposition, with Thatcher destined to lose the election to be held before the end of 1979.

But just as the unions helped destroy Heath’s government with a miners’ strike, so they helped to destroy the ensuing Labour government; the “Winter of Discontent” — a series of rolling strikes initiated by unions over the 1978-79 winter — had disrupted sectors such as waste collection, cemetery workers, emergency services and transport workers.

It destroyed public support for James Callaghan’s Labour government, and as the rubbish literally piled up across the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party moved — and won — a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

Taking office after winning the resulting election held in May 1979, Thatcher publicly enunciated a wish for her government: it was the Prayer of St Francis, which runs

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.

Where there is error, may we bring truth.

Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.

And where there is despair, may we bring hope.

These were words that were time and again flung in her face by opponents and detractors.

As a middle-class woman from the Tory Right, Thatcher was obliged to allocate a significant number of ministries in her government to internal party opponents.

Typically, these were Conservative grandees; landed gentry figures whose careers in public office were built on a culture of consensus and a tolerance of the creeping socialism that had all but strangled Britain in the postwar years prior to 1979: the very attitudes Thatcher saw as the root causes of the decline that she regarded as her mission to reverse.

This was the basis of the notorious “wet-dry” schism for which the early Thatcher government was known; the “wets” on the Tory Left, mostly loyal to former leader Heath, went to great lengths to frustrate  and obstruct the Thatcher agenda in government.

But — in Thatcher’s own famous words — the lady was not for turning.

The Conservative Party had come to office in a country blighted by inefficient and uncompetitive industrial practice, a rampant and militant trade union movement, declining living standards, and the suffocating effect of nationalised industries operating in outdated or obsolete markets: unable to compete in the world or retain market share, the slow creep of socialism was choking the very life out of the country.

So after two years of internal warfare, Thatcher jettisoned the “wets” from her cabinet; in return, the “men in grey suits” never ceased to look for the opportunity to tear her down.

Thatcher’s government was remarkable in that it initiated radical and widespread change in virtually every aspect of British society: nationalised industries and state-owned assets were privatised; the outdated and inefficient framework of British industrial practice was torn down; the stranglehold of unions over industry was broken; and the decades-old culture of consensus government at a snail’s pace was replaced with an emphasis on personal responsibility, private enterprise, and what is still known as the “opportunity society.”

Like any period of sustained change, there was indeed dislocation, and there were indeed losers. But Thatcher was an agent of change, and the transformation her government undertook of the United Kingdom was necessary, urgent, and long overdue.

Indeed, the vindication of those changes lies in the fact that almost a quarter of a century after Thatcher left office, much of what was controversial in the 1980s is remains in place, regarded very much as the norm.

Certainly, Thatcher made enemies, and fought many battles against them; in 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers — led by militant mining figure Arthur Scargill — attempted to bring down the Thatcher government in the same way it had engineered the demise of Heath’s government in 1974; but the miners acted and illegally, and in breaking their strike, Thatcher effectively broke the militancy of the entire union movement.

And IRA terrorists made an assassination attempt on Thatcher at the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton; whilst they succeeded in killing or maiming a handful of the party’s people in the attack, Thatcher survived unhurt.

But it was the invasion by Argentina of the Falkland Islands in 1982 that provided the pivot point for nationalist pride to begin to be restored; Thatcher’s swift dispatch of a military taskforce to the South Atlantic, and its recapture of the islands after a brief but successful war against the Argentinian forces of the dictator Galtieri, was a turning point in both the country’s self-esteem and in the political fortunes of the Conservative Party.

The Falkland Islands conflict is widely credited as a major factor in the thumping election win recorded by the Conservative Party in 1983; a second landslide re-election would be achieved four years later, in June 1987, as the British economy boomed, and many believed that Britain’s structural economic problems had been solved.

Thatcher left her mark on international affairs beyond the Falklands; in 1980 she reached a settlement with the black majority in white-governed Rhodesia, from which democratic Zimbabwe was born, and of which Robert Mugabe became its first Prime Minister (in 1980, there was no indication of the murderous regime Mugabe would run; indeed, Britain won international praise for the settlement it reached in Rhodesia at the time).

Her dealings with paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to the simultaneous return of Hong Kong to China, and the opening of China to British trade.

And she will be remembered as perhaps the pivotal influence in bringing the Cold War to an end; it was Thatcher who identified Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a man the West could “do business with;” through her close personal and political relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, the pair were able to speed the spread of democracy in eastern Europe and the fall of communism, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR itself.

But throughout her years in government, the “men in grey suits” waited, and watched; Thatcher had forced one of their number — Michael Heseltine — out of the government in 1986, over a dispute centred on the bailout of a helicopter company, Westland.

And in 1988, Whitelaw — the “wet” whom she had beaten to the Tory leadership, and who subsequently served as her deputy — retired, removing what had been an important balancing and moderating influence on her.

Thatcher’s third term in office marked the onset of drift; disputes with her ministers became more frequent, as colleagues of her own generation were replaced by younger and less experienced men and women as the government matured.

But it was her policy of a poll tax — the principle by which a duke would pay the same charge for council services as a pensioner — that sowed the seeds of destruction of her government; conservative voters in Tory strongholds demonstrated against a conservative government for the first time in living memory.

(Ironically, the continuing Major government restructured and neutralised the tax, but its basic premise remains largely unchanged, and has been operative for 20 years).

And her Eurosceptic, anti-European views ultimately provided the trigger for her party to dump her.

Key ministers Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe resigned in 1989 and 1990 respectively; Howe’s resignation speech was widely seen as an invitation to Michael Heseltine to stand against Thatcher for the leadership, which he did.

Heseltine had spent his years on the backbench befriending backbenchers and canvassing their support, with the consequence Thatcher failed to win the first ballot; and rather than risk a loss in a second ballot, she took the honourable path, and resigned.

Following her retirement from the House of Commons in 1992, the Queen created her a life peer — Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven — although she rarely sat in the House of Lords.

Thatcher gradually withdrew from public life; her beloved husband, Denis, died in 2003, shortly after which Thatcher suffered a series of mild strokes that affected her mobility and short-term memory. As is well known, prior to her death she also suffered from dementia.

She lived her final years in the privacy of a flat in Belgravia, in central London, and is thought to have been staying at the Ritz Hotel when she died to enable easier access to her by medical personnel who had been treating her.

Thatcher is survived by her twin adult children, Mark and Carol, and their families.

Her legacy will be one of lasting change in Britain, and of indeed reversing her country’s decline, both in its own standards of living and in its place in the world.

Britain, and the wider world, is a better place for her time as Prime Minister, and the enduring nature of the changes her government made — both in Britain, and in the countries around the world that adopted them — is testament to her remarkable achievement born from a simple wish to restore the greatness of her country.

Like any agent of change, she will be revered by some, and reviled by others: such is the nature of politics and politicians, and the impacts they engender upon democratic societies.

But as Margaret Thatcher (or Mrs T, or simply Margaret, as those of us who were fond of her were wont to call her) herself often remarked: “It’s a funny old world.”

This column wishes to express its great sorrow at Mrs Thatcher’s passing; we trust she is resting in peace, and may God rest her soul.

BREAKING NEWS: Former British PM Margaret Thatcher Dead at 87

IN DREADFULLY sad news tonight, former British Prime Minister has died this morning (London time); Mrs Thatcher is reported to have suffered a final stroke after an intermittent series of minor strokes in recent years, and died peacefully in her sleep. She was a few months short of her 88th birthday.

After years of hoax announcements, this one is accurate.

This is frightfully upsetting news and I will be monitoring the British press through the night (Melbourne time) for more information, and will post again later tonight or tomorrow.