Since she was diagnosed with the nerve-debilitating Parkinson’s disease in the fall of 2010, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain,
Margaret Thatcher, was in her trademark defiant mood, fighting back the disease. To the sorrow of many, however, the “Iron lady” finally succumbed to stroke and passed away last Monday, 8th of April 2013, at the age of 87.
Its illustrious history books asserted that the United Kingdom has had its share of remarkable twentieth-century prime ministers. David Lloyd George was, in many respects, the architect of victory over Germany in the First World War. Winston Churchill led the country to another victory in the second. Clement Attlee spearheaded the transformation of British society after 1945 with the creation of the welfare state. None of them, however, lent their names to an “ism”; there would have been something almost un-British about it.
All that changed when Margaret Thatcher assumed power as Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher became leader of the British Conservative Party in 1975, and Prime Minister in 1979, holding both positions until 1990. It was after the Conservative defeat in 1974 that she rose to prominence as the standard bearer of the right wing of the party, which accused their former leader, Edward Heath, of causing the electoral failure by moving the party too much into a centrist position.
Thatcher, advocating what she described as ‘the politics of conviction’, quite deliberately broke the consensual approach which had Thatcherism dominate British party politics since the era of “Butskellism”. Her political philosophy, though always eclectic, had two main thrusts. The first was an economic policy of monetarism, in contrast to the prevailing Keynesian orthodoxy. It should be noted however, that monetarism was beginning to be accepted, even by the Labor government of 1974–79, and has since become almost as much orthodox as Keynesianism had been.
The second thrust was the idea of ‘rolling back the state’, of creating private opportunity and personal responsibility, in all areas of life. This took many forms. Perhaps the most representative was the privatization of nationalized industries, as in the selling to the public and to industry shares in the water, electricity, gas and telecommunications utilities.
Thatcherism also encompassed the reduction of the role of central or local government in many traditional areas such as council housing, and was extended to decentralization of functions which had to stay in the state domain. Thus, the National Health Service and the school system were reformed, with hospitals and schools encouraged to take more direct control over their own budgets and practices.
Thatcherism was so pervasive that it is difficult to put any bounds on its reach. Thatcher was opposed to the power of large institutions, especially if they had aspects of a monopoly. For example, the exclusive rights of opticians to sell reading glasses, or of solicitors to conveyance in the sale of houses, were taken away, and even the privileges of barristers over ordinary solicitors were eroded. The first target of this approach, however, was the Trade Union movement and a series of legislation massively reduced the ability of Unions to call strikes and generally restricted their practices.
Naturally, there were many other aspects to Thatcher’s policies. She was right-wing in a conventional way across the policy spectrum, which is tough on law and order issues, close to the USA in foreign policy and dubious of the European Communities (now the European Union), less moved by social injustice than some, but none of these are specifically ‘Thatcherite’ attitudes. From a political theorist point of view, Thatcherism would concentrate on her notion of freedom and responsibility of the individual in a way that links her far more with libertarianism and 19th century liberalism than with the traditional ‘Tory’ philosophy of the Conservative Party. Her influence on the Conservative Party began to wane shortly after she was removed from power, and by the beginning of the 21st century, very few Conservative politicians were comfortable with the Thatcherite label.
Today, the legacy of Thatcherism is ambivalent. Her economic track record well indicated that, on the one hand, Thatcher pulled the country out of the economic tailspin of the 1970s; on the other hand, her war on regulation facilitated the banking extravaganzas that eventually resulted in the on-going financial crisis.
According to foreign policy pundits, what is less well-grasped, however, is Thatcher’s legacy in foreign policy, which is at least as important and equally complex. After all, the sobriquet “Iron Lady” was bestowed on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not by British miners or Thatcher’s many domestic opponents, but by the Soviet press in the mid-1980s. It reflected her reputation for toughness on the military and on the diplomatic front, particularly in the joint effort with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to strengthen the West’s nuclear defences during the Cold War.
Her most comprehensive victory came in the 1982 Falklands War when she dispatched a British task force, at considerable risk, to expel an Argentine force from the Falkland Islands. Thatcher’s relations with her partners in the then European Community were more pacific, but the leaders of continental Europe nevertheless feared the vigor with which she represented British interests in Brussels. After decades of drift and decline, Thatcher re-established the United Kingdom as a major force on the international scene.
Thatcher’s close relationship with Reagan was based, above all, on their shared belief in economic liberalization at home and the promotion of democracy abroad, at least in the Communist world. Despite her reputation for inflexibility, Thatcher often showed remarkable imagination. She was the first Western leader to recognize the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev, whom she defined as “a man we can do business with” even before his elevation to the Soviet leadership. In this respect, she played a key role in ending the Cold War.
According to Brendan Simms, Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, where Thatcher ultimately came unstuck was in her principle, which was a preoccupation with German power and a related profound ambivalence about European integration. She was a strong supporter of the European common market, partly because of her belief in free trade and partly because she thought that a reinvigorated and economically robust Europe would help contain the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, Thatcher belonged to a generation that had gone through World War II and naturally feared German power and German unification.
By the late 1980s, she began to view the growing influence of the European Commission in Brussels, not only as an encroachment on the democratic rights of the British people, but also as a vehicle for the reassertion of German power on the continent. In 1989–90, Thatcher’s commitment to democracy and her fear of Germany were in direct contradiction. It was only with difficulty that the United States and her own advisers persuaded her to accept the inevitable.
Nearly 25 years later, as Europe struggles with its sovereign debt crisis and the ever-widening gulf between Germany and Europe’s periphery, Thatcher’s concerns seem less far-fetched, not because of any malevolence on the part of Germany, but because of the flawed structure of the common currency, the Euro, and the sheer size of the German Federal Republic.
Her failure of imagination in the 1980s was to insist on the renationalization of the powers drifting toward Brussels, rather than allowing for the different European countries to buy into the project of integration democratically, through the creation of a single electoral and political space. Of course, the resulting loss of British sovereignty would have been unacceptable for Thatcher and indeed for the British people. But such a program would at least have given London a positive agenda towards Europe, instead of its half-in, half-out approach of the past three decades. In the final analysis, it is possible to conclude that Thatcher saved Britain, while she lost Europe.