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Margaret Thatcher and the Triumph of Conservatism

Her battles with British “wets” remain a lesson for American conservatives.

By 4.9.13

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She called them “the wets.”

And Margaret Thatcher had no time for them.

What is a “wet” in British politics?

Thatcher biographer Hugo Young, author of The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher, described the wets -- and Margaret Thatcher’s scorn for them -- this way. A wet was

“…a word epistomising the attitudes she most scorned, (and) it entered the mind and the vocabulary of Margaret Thatcher early in her time as party leader. Latently it was there long before.… It signified moderation, caution and the middle-minded approach to politics.… To be a wet was to be paternalistic… to be fearful of extreme measures…

There was also, Young notes, “an identifiable collection of men to whom it could aptly be applied.”

It is often noted that Margaret Thatcher’s political soul mate was Ronald Reagan.

With considerable reason.

There is no accident that Reagan had his own collection of “wets” to deal with in American politics. In America they were -- and are -- called “Republican moderates.”

Reagan had met Thatcher for the very first time thirty-eight years ago today -- April 9, 1975. Thatcher was by then the newly elected Leader of the Opposition in Britain’s House of Commons -- the British Conservative Party. She was elected, it should be remembered, because she took on the Conservative party leader of the day, former Prime Minister Edward Heath, a man she regarded as an incurable wet.

On that day in April, Reagan, only months out of office after two successful terms as Governor of California, was pondering a run for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination against then-President Gerald Ford. Reagan viewed Ford precisely as Thatcher had viewed Heath -- as an American wet, a moderate Republican.

The meeting, in Thatcher’s office in the House of Commons, was scheduled to last forty-five minutes. It lasted an hour and a half. Years later, President Reagan would look back with fondness on that meeting, telling The Times (of London) correspondent Geoffrey Smith that “We found that we were really akin with regard to our views of government and economics and government’s place in people’s lives and that sort of thing.”

Indeed they were. It is no accident that Thatcher will now receive major accolades for her leadership as a three-term prime minister, complete with a ceremonial funeral and the all the panoply the British can muster, which is to say, considerable. The British equivalent of all the high ceremony and outpouring of affection and respect for Reagan himself at his death in 2004.

So let’s stay with Thatcher’s battles with the wets of her Conservative Party. Because it is a telling reminder to American conservatives as they do current battle with Republican moderates and beyond that with President Obama and the forces of the American Left. Moderates -- or, as we might call them with a tip of the hat to Lady Thatcher -- American wets.

To recall, by the time Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, Britain was in the economic dumper. In the aftermath of World War II Britain had turned to socialism, nationalizing one industry after another. The tragedy was not that British Laborites believed in all of this as the nation’s fortunes began to sink. No, the real tragedy was that the leadership of the British conservative party bought into what, in America, Barry Goldwater would all too accurately peg as a “dime store New Deal.” Meaning: there were those in the British Conservative Party who bought into Laborite doctrine -- just a little less so.

When the Heath government lost in 1974, Thatcher came forward the following year to challenge Heath’s leadership of the party. She was proposing changes -- big changes.

She began with two.

Thatcher had no intention of following the wets in allowing socialism to claim the moral high ground. Socialism, as she tartly noted, was “lacking in morality” in Hugo Young’s words. In a speech to the Zurich Economic Society she said:

“Choice is the essence of ethics. If there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil: good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.”

In that same speech she made plain her second point about the dawning recognition of why there was such widespread and seemingly constant economic chaos and poverty in Britain:

“…the tide is beginning to turn against collectivism, socialism, statism, dirigisme, (economic control and planning by the state) whatever you call it…It is becoming increasingly obvious to many people who were intellectual socialists that socialism has failed to fulfill its promises, both in its more extreme forms in the Communist world and in its compromise versions.”

In other words, Margaret Thatcher -- the grocer’s daughter, not a child of upper-class privilege -- knew exactly that socialism was a fraud and a deceit -- not to mention a conceit.

Philosophy was Margaret Thatcher’s North Star. It was what brought her to 10 Downing Street and it was what revitalized Britain.

But it wasn’t without a fight with the wets.

As the Brits would learn the hard way, the ravages of all the socialist dependence that had made the country the “sick man of Europe” would need both time and a high price to reverse. Not unlike an alcoholic realizing that the only way to save his health -- his life -- is to stop drinking.

In the course of cutting taxes and spending to reduce Britain’s staggering unemployment, a roaring inflation, defeat all-powerful trade unions and a looming deep recession -- and in Thatcher’s case getting on with privatizing whole industries that had been nationalized after the war and become an anchor on the economy -- the usual problem with wets arose. Said Thatcher later: 

“The Party was worried, and so was I. Our strategy was the right one, but the price of putting it into effect was proving so high, and there was such limited understanding of what we were trying to do, that we had great electoral difficulties. However, I was utterly convinced of one thing: there was no chance of achieving that fundamental change of attitudes which was required to wrench Britain out of decline if people believed that we were prepared to alter course under pressure.” 

Thatcher made her point to the wets this way in an October 10, 1980 speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton.

“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.’” 

Why Thatcher’s felt need to directly address the wets at a party conference?

Because “it was in the summer of 1980 that my critics within the Cabinet first seriously attempted to frustrate the strategy which we had been elected to carry out….” As she spoke that October, she noted later, “many people felt that this group had more or less prevailed.”

What Thatcher goes on to detail in her memoirs Margaret Thatcher: The Downing Street Years should sound familiar to anyone watching Republicans struggle to answer President Obama by agreeing to that rise in taxes on the rich back at the turn of the year. Not to mention serve as a warning for the battles with Obama to come.

The arguments in her Cabinet were “bitter”, particularly over public spending. The wets argued that Thatcher was “dogmatic” and because of her refusal to moderate her government was cutting spending when it should in fact be following some version of Keynesianism and increasing spending to increase demand in the economy.

Thatcher, who had served at the beginning of her career in various ministries of earlier Conservative governments, was no fool. She knew exactly what was afoot: the political game of ministers trying to protect their departmental budgets. Said she: “The ‘wets’ argument came in different forms of varying sophistication, though their central message was always the same: spend and borrow more.”

Instead of forthrightly making their objections, the wets played the game of leaks, their public dissent worded in what Thatcher disdained as “a highly sophisticated code” -- and not coincidentally, a disdain for leadership from a woman. (Later in her term, when Thatcher found it necessary to remove a Cabinet minister, she would say that the infuriated Minister gave “the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid.”) One member of her government trotted to Cambridge a month after Thatcher’s Brighton speech and insisted that Britain was risking “the creation of a ‘Clockwork Orange’ society with all its attendant alienation and misery.”

Thatcher had had it. This was what she called “the ‘wet’ Tory Establishment” at work, and she would not tolerate it. Employing her rights as Prime Minister she, as the Brits say, “shuffled” her Cabinet -- shuffling some of the wets right out the door and onto the back benches. She made her case yet again -- making it equally plain that she wasn’t caving to criticism from the wets.

She took to the House and reiterated her beliefs:

“As governments tried to stimulate employment by pumping money into the economy they cause inflation. The inflation led to higher costs. The higher costs meant less ability to compete. The few jobs that we had gained were soon lost; and so were a lot more with them. And then, from a higher level of unemployment and inflation, the process was started all over again, and each time around both inflation and unemployment rose.”

Hearing this, the wets turned to allies in the media. The Conservative Sunday Times promptly ran a headline that insisted:

Wrong, Mrs. Thatcher, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.

As Thatcher’s wet critics learned the details of her next budget -- and the cuts included -- they were stunned, infuriated. Thatcher’s reaction to what she saw as sheer gutlessness, was stiff: 

“In the past our people have made sacrifices, only to find at the eleventh hour their government had lost its nerve and the sacrifice had been in vain. It shall not be in vain this time. This Conservative Government, not yet two years in office, will hold fast until the future of our country is assured. I do not greatly care what people say about me: I do greatly care what people think about our country. Let us, then, keep calm and strong, and let us preserve that mutual friendship in which patriotism consists. This is the road I am resolved to follow. This is the path I must go. I ask all who have the spirit -- the bold, the steadfast and the young in heart -- to stand and join with me as we go forward. For there is no other company in which I would travel.”

So strong was Thatcher in refusing to buckle to the wets that when the Times noted her political dominance and that, if successful (success defined as “regenerating the British economy” and winning the next election), “it will be a remarkable personal triumph.” But if she failed, the paper warned, “the fault will be laid at her door, though the damage and the casualties will spread wide through the political and economic landscape.”

Thatcher’s response? 

I could accept that.”

There is no accident that history’s vindication of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office -- not only did she regenerate the British economy, she was Ronald Reagan’s partner in winning the Cold War -- that this vindication includes her definitive victory over what Reagan might have called the “pale pastels” that were the British wets. While it was the Russians who dubbed her “the Iron Lady” -- it was the British wets who felt her steel.

And in that victory there is a cautionary note for American conservatives as they move forward.

On February 3, 1994, Margaret Thatcher came to Washington for one last public dinner with her old soul mate Ronald Reagan. It was a celebration of Reagan’s 83rd birthday. As it happened, along with many who had worked for Ronald Reagan, I was there that evening.

It was, to say the least, a poignant moment. There they were, he resplendent in his tux and she in her black evening dress. It’s on YouTube here and is, inevitably at a moment like this, particularly poignant.

What’s striking in watching Thatcher’s speech is how much of what she said that February night about Reagan applies to Thatcher herself:

“Sir, you strode into our midst at a time when America needed you most. This great country had been through a period of national malaise, bereft of any sense of moral direction. Through it all… you were unflappable and unyielding. You brushed off the gibes and jabs of your jealous critics…. You brought a new assurance to America. You were not only America’s president… you were a great leader. At a time of average men

Change a few words here -- the “sir” to “M’am”, “America” to “Britain” and all of this and more would apply to Margaret Thatcher. As she said that night of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher “blended the wisdom of the ages with the circumstances of contemporary times.”

One of the gifts for those in attendance that evening was a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan walking the grounds of the presidential retreat at Camp David.

It is accompanied by this Reagan quote:

“History comes and goes, but principles endure and inspire future generations to defend liberty, not as a gift from government, but a blessing from our Creator.”

As Margaret Thatcher fades into a world history where she will be honored forever for her role in standing up for the enduring principles of freedom and liberty, it would do American conservatives well to recall that both Thatcher and Reagan were pilloried by their opponents of the day as living in the past. All too frequently that ancient criticism came from the wets of both countries.

In fact, as Thatcher’s battles with the British wets and Reagan’s battles with Republican moderates demonstrated so vividly, the politics of conservative moderation are not only political losers (the successors to both Reagan and Thatcher -- George H.W. Bush and John Major -- were wets of a sort, each serving but one term before being turned out by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) but losers in the eyes of history. (And, it should be noted, the reason for Clinton and Blair's respective successes was that they brought their respective left-wing parties into a closer proximity to the successful policies of conservatives Reagan and Thatcher -- and effectively extended the successes of the two younger conservatizing liberals.)

Both Thatcher and Reagan understood to their very core that standing by principle -- as Thatcher said that cold February night with Reagan at her side one last time -- was the very essence of blending “the wisdom of the ages with the circumstances of contemporary times.”

Margaret Thatcher did just that.

She never flinched. She never wavered.

In the hands of the Iron Lady, Britain and the world witnessed the triumph of conservative principle.

There is a lesson there for American conservatives.

Particularly those who are all wet. 

Photo: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.