Reflections on Thatcher

Wikimedia: Margaret Thatcher

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’”

That famous statement to the 1980 Conservative Party Conference captured in an instant the combative style of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman and longest-serving peacetime prime minister who died this week aged 87.  Regarded today as one of Britain’s political giants she was also one of the most divisive leaders in recent history.

Her views and style were intrinsically linked to her origins and her moment in history.  The daughter of a Grantham greengrocer (a fruit and vegetable seller) she had to fight against class and privilege throughout her life.  This struggle was of course compounded by her being a woman at a time when Britain and the Conservative Party were deeply patriarchal.  In a sense Thatcher was a series of inspired contradictions.  She was both deeply conservative and yet revolutionary, unyielding but yet pragmatic. 

Known today for her role as a victor of the 1982 Falklands War and the Cold War she came to power in 1979 on the back of disastrous governments of both political hues which had reduced Britain to the “sick man of Europe.”  From the moment she stepped into 10 Downing Street she rejected the cozy Establishment consensus that government was simply the management of Britain’s inevitable decline.  She sought the re-invigoration of Britain and in so doing broke the post-war statist consensus and moved the political center ground to the center-right where it stayed until this current age of focus groups and political correctness. 

Her methods at home were little short of brutal believing Britain needed a short, sharp, shock if it was to compete in a changing world.  Her neo-liberal economic policies were not universally successful and certainly not universally popular and she probably did more damage than was necessary to Britain’s industry.  Moreover, her focus on keeping interest rates high did much to damage small business and many of the home-owning class she claimed to champion.  However, that much had to change cannot be questioned.  In 1984 she successfully faced down the mighty National Union of Mineworkers during a strike that was as much about who governed Britain as industrial policy.  

Her foreign policy stature grew in the wake of the Falklands War. She was by no means slavish to the US like Tony Blair and had few illusions about the Americans.  Whilst her ideological ‘marriage’ to fellow-conservative US President Ronald Reagan clearly boosted her own standing she understood critically that the Special Relationship had to be founded on political and indeed military strength (something David Cameron singularly fails to understand). Under Thatcher for a time Britain enjoyed a genuine Special Relationship with the Americans which in turn strengthened her internationally.  This was evident in her 1985 meeting with soon-to-be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man with whom she “could do business.”  Equally, inspired by her Hayekian belief in freedom, ‘doing business’ with the Soviet Union meant a Europe ‘whole and free,’ as she made clear in her amazing, uncensored 1987 interview with Soviet TV.

However, it was perhaps her attitude to European integration that perhaps most defined Thatcher internationally.  She was deeply concerned about German reunification believing that in time it would lead to a German-dominated Europe.  She successfully righted the patent unfairness of Britain’s 1973 terms of entry into the then-European Economic Community (EEC) by negotiating a rebate with the famous slogan, “I want my money back!”

And yet that very slogan also highlighted a fundamental problem in her dealings with other European leaders.  Maybe, just maybe, had she been able to build relationships with the likes of France’s President Mitterand and Germany’s Chancellor Kohl Britain may have been invited into the inner leadership sanctum of the Franco-German axis.  However, her instincts told her otherwise (almost certainly correctly).  Moreover, her tendency to ‘handbag’ other leaders undermined Britain’s ability to build a counter-coalition to the French and Germans.  

Her basic beliefs were those of a lower middle class Englishwoman whose formative years witnessed first the appeasement and then the defeat of Hitler and then the emergence of the socialized state.  She rejected both appeasement and the socialized state.  In her fervor to tackle the latter she perhaps placed too much importance on the goodness of the market.  It was Thatcher who in 1986 liberalized the City of London which first boomed and then in 2008 crashed under the weight of its own corruption.  Indeed, she had an essentially Adam Smithian view of the world by which small government should support the talented to work hard and succeed precisely to keep government small. 

Has Thatcher left a legacy?  The neo-socialist obsession of London’s out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite would suggest that Britain is again facing many of the same problems as in the 1970s. She would have utterly rejected the current obsession with equality over quality, and the disastrous liberal mantra that diversity somehow generates strength.  Above all, she would have hated the all too comfortable return to short-termism and mediocrity even if that very mediocrity over time guarantees Britain’s renewed decline.

Even in power she was the antidote to the hollow professional political class that is today so despised in Britain.  Thatcher was the conviction politician of all conviction politicians who stood on a set of principles that today seem alien to Britain’s current political leaders. 

Above all, Thatcher’s political instincts were invariably correct about the big issues of the day. The simple maxim she followed throughout her political career was that of the greengrocer’s daughter she was: a country cannot spend more than it can afford. 

For a brief moment she made Britain count again.  As such Margaret Thatcher spoke to a silent majority who shared (and share) her patriotic beliefs, and who were desperate for a leader who believed like them that Britain could again aspire to greatness. 

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast, and Aspenia Online.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Image: Margaret_Thatcher_near_helicopter.jpg