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The Thatcher Legacy

She reversed history and gave it new life. Our June issue's cover story.

By From the June 2013 issue

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One who does not disparage politicians as a class can still say that Margaret Thatcher was something relatively rare: a conviction politician, willing to forfeit popularity in order to advance policies in which she fervently believed. Free of double-talk, devoid of triangulation, indifferent to spin, Thatcher did what she thought right and was largely content to let her legacy take care of itself. And little wonder: Politicians who actually believe that the policies they implement will redound to the general good are seldom perturbed by the verdict history may record. Even the far-left former Labour minister Tony Benn paid her a handsome tribute after her death. “Although I thought she was wrong, she said what she meant and meant what she said. It was not about style with her; it was substance—I don’t think she listened to spin doctors.”

In this respect, Thatcher showed some of the sangfroid of her 19th-century predecessor Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who once averred that the burden of choice depends “upon the materials for decision that are available and not in the least upon the magnitude of the results which may follow.” Given that she took charge of a Britain in crisis where the stakes were self-evidently enormous, her composure in taking bold action was remarkable.

As it is, conviction can generate its own political capital, and her reservoir was such that she succeeded in winning three consecutive elections (1979, 1983, 1987) despite being sometimes a polarizing figure and presiding over a government that was, at first anyway, far from assured. Even before rioting by hard-hit Caribbean immigrants disfigured the streets of Brixton in South London, the “wets”—the Tories loyal to her predecessor, former prime minister Edward Heath—were murmuring discontent. But Thatcher remained unfazed. “You turn if you want to,” she declaimed, dismissing any expectation of a U-turn at the October 1980 Conservative Party conference. “The lady’s not for turning!” Instead, Thatcher stuck to her guns so that when she departed office in November 1990—victim of an internal party ambush over her bridge too far, a deeply unpopular local government tax—she had served more than 11 and a half years as British prime minister, longer than any in the 20th century and the fifth longest in her country’s storied history. 

Thatcher’s greatest legacy on the whole—and it is on the whole that such matters must be judged—was aptly summarized in the Washington Post’s obituary: “Mrs. Thatcher…changed not only her country’s direction but also its standing in the world.” This is no less than the truth. She had indeed reversed what even British leftists came to concede, if only privately, had been the accelerating decline and atrophy of Britain—“the long reign of mediocrity and torpor,” as the late British American writer Christopher Hitchens put it in his memoir.

In fact, there was a good deal the left could have admired about her, had they been so minded. Margaret Hilda Roberts, to give her full maiden name, was not drawn of the usual class of Tory grandees. The daughter of a grocer in Grantham (no connection to the fictitious earldom of Downton Abbey), Lincolnshire, who grew up in a house without running water, she rose by dint of sustained application to win scholarships that paved her way to Somerville College, Oxford. There she headed the University Conservative Association and first encountered the writings of Friedrich von Hayek, who warned of the wages of governmental intervention in the economy, and, later, the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman. She took degrees in both chemistry and law, and would practice both professions before entering politics in 1959 at the age of 34. By then she had distilled her credo, which the conservative historian Paul Johnson, her close confidant in office, recently called “a blend of Adam Smith and the Ten Commandments, the three most important elements being hard work, telling the truth, and paying bills on time.” In office, as the Marxist historian Christopher Hill put it (as redacted by Hitchens), she chose “to face down the outmoded syndicalism of the trade unions but had also ‘taken on’ corporate-state ideas among business people, and picked fights with the House of Lords, the ancient universities, the traditional Conservative Party, the Church of England, and even the House of Windsor.” This meant, among other things, that she became the first Oxford-educated prime minister to be refused an honorary doctorate from her alma mater while in office. Conservative she was, no doubt, but a radical conservative of humble origins whom the conventional did not forgive. 

Her arrivals as Tory leader and later as prime minister were freak occurrences. In 1975, Heath had failed to retain the confidence of his colleagues after the Tories’ defeat the previous year. Thatcher, who at that time had held only one portfolio (Education and Science), was content to back Sir Keith Joseph, her intellectual comrade, for the job. But Joseph had stumbled politically in a speech the previous year and despaired of leading the Tories to victory. Thatcher, who had never contemplated leadership, thereupon put herself forward in a field devoid of other challengers to Heath and won. Then, as opposition leader, her opportunity came when Labour prime minister James Callaghan unwisely put off a possible 1978 election, when a small lift in the country’s economic fortunes and favorable polls presaged what might have been a Labour re-election. Instead, Callaghan went down in the eventual election of May 1979, following the 1978–79 “Winter of Discontent”—a series of rolling strikes that at one point even involved gravediggers walking off the job.

As prime minister, Thatcher took charge of a Britain beset with strikes, stagflation, dying industry, rising unemployment, and with successive governments, Conservative and Labour, prostrate before union power. Incrementalist rather than ideological, her government legislated a series of changes that enabled the police forces to bring intimidatory strikers to heel and, above all, altered the psychological landscape of British politics: Here was a government that would neither shirk its responsibilities nor lose a test of strength. With British miners, led by the Stalinist firebrand Arthur Scargill, matters came to a head in 1984 after 20 unproductive coal pits were closed. Counting on a nationwide strike of the kind that had ended Heath’s government a decade earlier, and in defiance of National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) rules, Scargill prevented a national vote on a countrywide strike he knew he would have lost and engineered instead a domino effect of walk-outs. Thatcher adroitly supported Nottinghamshire miners, who had overwhelmingly opposed a strike, enforced the law to enable the 43 pits still functioning to remain in operation—despite belligerent NUM picketers—and broke up coordinated efforts to bus in violent protesters from across the country. It took a year, but Scargill’s strike collapsed, though not before five people were dead, including a taxi driver killed for taking working miners to their jobs. The NUM subsequently split, and a new Union of Democratic Mineworkers emerged in time as a countervailing force. Scargill drifted to the margins of political life and stayed there.

Thatcher also reformed and simplified the British tax code, lowering the slant of progressive taxation by dropping the top rate from 98 percent to 40 percent. Money-losing nationalized industries were privatized, generally with success. British Steel, for instance, rose from crushing losses to become the most profitable and productive steel producer in Europe by the time Thatcher had departed office. On her watch, the British economy, which had been shrinking steadily, enjoyed seven consecutive years of growth. No less a hidebound Marxist than the late historian Eric Hobsbawm records that “even the British Left was eventually to admit that some of the ruthless shocks imposed by Mrs. Thatcher on the British economy had probably been necessary.” Unsurprisingly, the victims of the shock therapy, the unemployed and dislocated of various industries, were less enthusiastic or forgiving. Defying Scargill did not save the jobs of Nottinghamshire miners, and Thatcher’s closure of the coal mines remains a point of controversy in an energy-scarce Britain today.

THATCHER MADE NEITHER an early nor a consistent effort to block the expansion and penetration of the European Union’s laws into Britain. Prophetic though her warnings about the effects of EU legislation upon Britain were—for example, EU laws have rendered it virtually impossible for London to deport convicted terrorists who have entered the country—they came nonetheless too late in her term and may in fact have played an important part in ending it. On the perils of a single European currency, however, she was years ahead of her time. And regardless of her failings on the issue of Europe, Thatcher restored substance to the Anglo-American alliance. Like her predecessor Winston Churchill, she believed that Britain and the Anglosphere more generally were forces for good, and that division and vacillation invited destructive forces to fill the vacuum. This too invited derision and hostility from the left. Scargill denigrated her ally in Washington as “President Ray-gun.”

Indeed, sepia images of the Churchill-Roosevelt alliance had long been dismissed by the British left as relics of a bygone era. Some had even execrated the Atlanticist impulse as a form of covert hankering for empire or else sentimentality. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, another radical who so disliked America that he never visited it (though he made it to Canada), argued that Churchill’s conception of the Anglosphere “had few merits…he never considered how far England and America had been associated, which was very little, and—particularly—how far they could be associated in the future.” 

Yet Thatcher’s time in office vindicated her thinking: After some internal bickering within the Reagan administration over managing the 1982 Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, the U.S. provided Britain with diplomatic and intelligence support for their recapture. In 1973, Heath’s government, along with every European country save Portugal, declined to offer America assistance in its massive resupply of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This attitude was now reversed. In 1986, following the bombing of a German discothèque popular with American servicemen by terrorist operatives of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime, Thatcher acceded to President Ronald Reagan’s request to utilize U.S. Air Force squadrons based in Britain to strike Libyan targets, though French refusal to permit overflight meant a longer and more hazardous journey around Western Europe. Thatcher thought this spineless and later offered a witheringly contemptuous verdict: “They’re a weak lot, some of them in Europe, you know. Weak. Feeble.”

Thatcher, of course, proved anything but weak and feeble when it came to the most important task of her premiership: managing what proved to be the last phase of the Cold War. She fully shared Reagan’s determination to roll back Soviet influence and intimidation in Europe. Her decision to support the stationing on British soil of new Pershing II missiles to counter the recent deployment in Warsaw Pact countries of Soviet SS-20 missiles delivered a robust message of Anglo-American resolve, irrespective of the rumblings of anti-nuclear campaigners in Britain. When in 1984 she came to meet Mikhail Gorbachev, visiting London as part of a Soviet delegation, her penchant for straight talk enabled her to strike up an unlikely rapport with him. “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together,” she said. When Gorbachev came to preside over the Soviet Union the following year, Thatcher’s connection was of inestimable value in bringing about a Reagan-Gorbachev summit and, ultimately, their landmark agreement to decommission a large quantity of ballistic missiles.

But working well with Gorbachev did not mean abandoning the repressed and downtrodden democrats behind the Iron Curtain. Thatcher made it her business to back them resolutely. “Without her, our fight against communists would have lasted much longer,” writes Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement, who was later to serve as president of a free Poland. Her support also meant more than merely transforming the battleground of ideas in Eastern Europe alone. “Until she entered the fray,” opined Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, “it was assumed that capitalism was ultimately going to converge with communism—and that a bigger and bigger role for the state was inevitable. She put an end to that. By rejuvenating Britain, she made the strongest possible case against the model of the command economy in both its hard and soft forms.”

EVENTUALLY, Thatcher fell victim to her own success. She had an unfortunate tendency to believe that her own judgment was infallible. Never easily dissuaded from a course of action once she had determined upon it, she increasingly shed critical advisers and colleagues. Eventually this fomented discontent and she lost touch with the nation’s political pulse. Yet despite the unseemliness of her fall from power, Thatcher left office with a bravura performance in the House of Commons in which she made short shrift of opposition attempts to humble her on the way out. Responding to taunts about a widening gap between rich and poor under her leadership, Thatcher riposted with her own version of Churchill’s description of socialism as the “equal sharing of misery”:

What the honorable member is saying is that he would rather the poor were poorer provided the rich were less rich. That way you will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. And what a policy!

Though she lacked Ronald Reagan’s geniality and light touch, she shared his ability to entertain with a good joke. And as with Reagan, straight talk was no impediment to her ability to speak over the heads of a hostile media to a receptive public. Unlike the crowd of vapid and vulgar haters in Britain who emerged from the woodwork to celebrate her death with street parties—Britain’s Trades Union Council last year even sold T-shirts in gleeful anticipation of her demise—she did not hate her political opponents because, being a woman of deep conviction, she could respect conviction in others. 

One anecdote may suffice. It concerns the memorial service in 1991 for former communist and hard-left Labour member of Parliament Eric Heffer (who had served as a junior minister under Benn). Heffer had once advocated nationalizing industries that were shedding jobs and creating a “third force” to counteract the U.S. and Soviet Union. Ailing, he had made his last appearance in the Commons to oppose the war that liberated Kuwait. He was, in short, the antithesis of Thatcher. But that did not matter; the two respected each other and Thatcher was in attendance at the service. Benn recounts, “I was asked to make a speech and as I was waiting, there was someone behind me coughing. It was Mrs. Thatcher, and at the end I thanked her for coming and she burst into tears. She had come out of respect for someone whose opinions she disagreed with.”

Perhaps that was also true of some amidst the multitudes that lined the streets of London at St. Paul’s Cathedral for her funeral, one which, for sheer stateliness, had not been seen on this scale for a prime minister since the death of Churchill in 1965. Indeed, not since Churchill’s have the Queen and Prince Philip attended a prime minister’s funeral. The British writer Malcolm Muggeridge once wryly observed: “Graveyard, or memorial, prose is among the least edifying and least pleasing forms of human composition. There is a prevailing flavor of syrupy insincerity, an affectation of wholehearted truthfulness, amounting to the worst kind of deception, which sickens as it surfeits.” Though Thatcher was not short of outspoken champions, her death and funeral passed largely free of that vice. Long eulogies were avoided, and, indeed, the theme, implemented faithfully at her wish, was to dwell upon the values of faith, patriotism, and hard work. Her coffin stood above the crypts containing the tombs of Nelson and Wellington, two heroes of Britain in what Churchill would have called a solemn hour. The United States was noticeably underrepresented: no President Obama, no high-level delegation. When America’s newest ally, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981, Reagan dispatched the three living presidents—Nixon, Ford, and Carter—to Cairo. But for one of America’s oldest allies, the delegation was led by two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and James Baker.

The international reactions were largely respectful. President Barack Obama called her “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty” and the United States’ “true friend.” Both he and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of shattered glass ceilings, though, perhaps understandably, less about what she had accomplished once she had broken through. But some of her opponents at home and abroad indulged in parting salvos of sincere spite and rancor. Others blamed woes as diverse as slashed defense spending and the banking downturn on her policies, as though two subsequent decades of policy elisions, alterations, and reversals had never occurred. Like ingrates, they pocketed the good while blaming her for the bad. South Africa’s governing ANC deplored her 1980s description of it as a terrorist organization. The ANC never forgave her for breaking with the Commonwealth and opposing sanctions on Pretoria she believed would prove destructive (though she supported embargoes on arms and oil). But it is well to remember that she was at the forefront of those badgering apartheid leader P.W. Botha to drop the ban on the ANC. She also urged Botha’s successor, F.W. de Klerk, to free Nelson Mandela—a chant wittily taken up by the waiting press when she and Mandela finally came to meet in London for what seemed an inordinately long confabulation. It proved to be the first of numerous meetings between the two across the years. Her last ambassador to Pretoria, Robin Renwick, wrote, “She regarded apartheid as an alien doctrine contrary to basic laws of justice and incompatible with her meritocratic vision of society, irrespective of race or creed.…She has done more to promote peaceful change in southern Africa than all her predecessors combined.”

THATCHER WAS A NATURAL, a born leader. And yet, as we have seen, the irony is that her arrival in office was largely the product of chance, not driving ambition or even the hard work for which she was justly famous. Evidently, the game does not always go to the most ruthless and ambitious. Chance confounds probability and, in the case of Margaret Thatcher, sets history upon a different trajectory. 

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About the Author

Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, London, 2004). His blog can be found on the History News Network.