AT A DINNER in New York on May 5, Margaret Thatcher was to have been honored with Boston College's signal award, the Ignatius Medal. In reality the honor would have been Boston College's.
Thatcher was the greatest British prime minister since Winston Churchill, and the most influential Western stateswoman of the 20th century. She defied dictators and defended liberty. She saved her nation from economic collapse and played a crucial role in the overthrow of communism. Since she left 10 Downing St. after 11-1/2 years in power, her stature has soared. Her autobiography, "The Downing Street Years," sold more copies in the first two weeks after its publication than any other book in British publishing history. Her presence at the BC affair was expected to raise $1 million.
But she will not be there.
News of the award to Thatcher was greeted with vitriolic protests by leftist Irish and Jesuit activists. (Boston College, a Jesuit institution, was founded by Irish Catholic immigrants). Thatcher was attacked for her record on Northern Ireland. She was called a bigot, a censor, an enemy of human rights. The scheduling of the award for May 5 – the anniversary, as it happens, of the death of Bobby Sands, an armed robber and Irish Republican Army gunrunner who starved himself to death in a 1981 hunger strike – was denounced as sacrilegious.
"Forever in Irish history," snapped Rev. Sean McManus of the Irish National Caucus in Washington, an anti-British outfit, "she will be identified with the brutal treatment of political prisoners."
Another inquisitor judged Thatcher insufficiently spiritual to deserve a medal named after Saint Ignatius (prior recipients: Tip O'Neill and and the chairman of GM). "During her time as prime minister there was no great decrease in the gap between rich and poor – in fact, quite the opposite." As for her foreign policy, it was "quite bellicose."
Time was when Jesuit-trained minds would have laughed off such criticism as juvenile and trite. BC's president, however, caved in to it. On Monday, the university announced that Thatcher would not receive the medal after all.
Thatcher has been snubbed by better schools than Boston College. Ten years ago the dons at Oxford, in high dudgeon over Thatcher's antisocialist policies, voted to deny her an honorary degree. They disagreed with the prime minister, therefore the prime minister must be slighted. Boston College has no monopoly on supercilious campus leftists.
On the other hand, Thatcher has been honored by better Catholics than BC's privileged alumni.
"The next day," she writes in her memoirs, recalling Nov. 4, 1988, "was one I shall never forget.
"I flew up to Gdansk. . . . It was suggested that I might like to look around the nearby church of St. Brygida. To my delighted astonishment, when Mr. Walesa and I entered, I found the whole church packed with Polish families, who rose and sang the Solidarity anthem 'God Give Us Back Our Free Poland.' I could not keep the tears from my eyes. I seemed to have shaken hundreds of hands as I walked around the church. . . . As I left there were people in the streets crying with emotion and shouting, 'Thank you, thank you' over and over again. I returned to Warsaw with greater determination than ever to do battle with the communist authorities."
After the tears and passion of St. Brygida, what do a medal and a dinner from Boston College matter?
There will be other medals and other dinners. And if Boston's Irish Catholic obsessives live out their days reviling the name of Margaret Thatcher, so what? Her reputation doesn't rest on what she did or failed to do in the field of Anglo-Irish relations. (Which is not to minimize her accomplishments. She did negotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, after all. And she did survive the IRA's attempts to kill her.)
Thatcher's greatness isn't about the weary Ulster sideshow. It's about the reanimation of the Western democracies in the 1980s.
When Thatcher came to power in 1979, Britain was sick and listless, paralyzed by unions run amok, and sunk deep in collectivist gloom. Its decline into Third World status seemed unstoppable. But Thatcher stopped it, and reversed it.
She wasn't wobbly, slick, lazy, elitist, or weak. She knew her mind. She had deep respect for middle-class virtues and values. She championed free trade in a Europe riven by protectionism and was a friend of the United States in a world gone goofy with anti-Americanism. She stood up to aggressors from the Falklands to Kuwait and stood with President Reagan in winning the Cold War.
Britain is better because Thatcher served. So is the West. So is the world. This grocer's daughter, this bossy woman with her ubiquitous handbag, is one of the giants of our time. She won't be at the dinner on May 5? A pity. But make no mistake: It is Boston College, not Mrs. Thatcher, that will be the poorer.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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