Turgut Özal and Margaret Thatcher

Turgut Özal and Margaret Thatcher

In another quirk of history, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher took place on the day we here in Turkey were officially commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of President Turgut Özal. The allusion may be lost on the young who are not aware of the close ties Özal and Thatcher enjoyed when they were in power.

Their friendship began when Özal was still prime minister. It was explained to me by a close advisor of Özal’s at the time that they would sit next to each other as “Turkey” and the “United Kingdom” at international functions where the sitting arrangement was done alphabetically. Both apparently found out during these encounters that they shared a similar outlook on life, and especially with regard to economic policies.

Özal made no secret of this preference for such policies, openly saying while he was still prime minister that he preferred the rich over the poor. Thatcher’s preference for the rich, meanwhile, was openly visible in her policies.

Both believed that private entrepreneurs drive economic growth, and therefore should be supported, while the poorer classes benefit from the trickle-down effect of this growth. It goes without saying that with such an outlook, neither had much respect for trade unions.

Özal was in fact instrumental in clipping the wings of trade unionism in Turkey, although much clipping had also been done by the military junta that toppled the government in 1980, and whose rule immediately preceded the advent of Özal and his Motherland Party (ANAP) in 1983.

 Özal and Thatcher were also two politicians with similar temperaments which made them doggedly pursue policies they believed to be right to the bitter end. This temperament also ensured that they were generally oblivious to strong criticism as they plowed on with their highly unpopular policies, no matter what turbulence these may have been causing on the streets.

Another common point Özal and Thatcher shared was the fact that were both equally admired and vilified in their own countries. According to Bilkent University historian Norman Stone, who worked closely with Thatcher at the time, she was undoubtedly the savior of Britain, which would have sunk without her tough but necessary policies which earned her the nickname of the “Iron Lady.”

Clearly many still oppose this contention today. The world-renowned actress Glenda Jackson is one of them. “By far the most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless,” she said after Thatcher’s death, refusing to pay any tribute to the former prime minister.

Many Turks feel the same about Turgut Özal, who literally liberalized the Turkish economy but also made life harder for the underprivileged. In the words of Cengiz Çandar, the prominent Turkish columnist, for example, “Özal brought Turkey into the 21st century,” a claim that many left-wing activists and politicians continue to dispute strongly today.

There can be no doubt that without Özal liberalizing the economy and opening the floodgates on private enterprise, the development that Turkey has seen over the past 20 years would not have been possible. But as far as the poorer classes are concerned, the economic “trickle down” theory has yet to prove itself.

The bottom line as far as Özal and Thatcher are concerned is that they showed that it is not possible to make an omelet without breaking an egg. That is all very well and good if you happen to be the one eating the omelet and are not the egg. Still, no one can deny that both Turgut Özal and Margaret Thatcher opened a place for themselves in the history books.