Remembering Baroness Thatcher
In my lifetime, I have witnessed only three cases of what I consider masterful governance: Ronald Reagan's presidency, Rudy Giuliani's mayoralty, and Margaret Thatcher's prime-ministership. I have certainly witnessed other prominent historical figures -- great moral figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul all come readily to mind here. But for taking an unwieldy government, in the midst of crisis, in the face of massive resistance by rent-seeking special interests and ideologically opposed elites, and forcing major economic and social improvements in the body politic over which one has been given executive power, those three were peerless.
In each of the three cases, the leader took office in a time when the citizens were discouraged, the economy desperate, and the social fabric frayed. And in each case, the executive was able to turn the situation around.
Margaret Thatcher is once again brought to mind by several recent stories, two of which were occasioned by the newly-released bio-flick The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep, based upon Thatcher's life.
The first article is by Andrew Pierce. Pierce tells us the melancholy news that Baroness Thatcher, now (at age 86) frail and debilitated after a stroke, will be spending Christmas with only her nurse. Her two children and two grandchildren will unfortunately be elsewhere. She is aware of the film's release, but as Pierce notes, "the great lady, who has no interest in watching the film, will have plenty of time to ponder her achievements -- which are given scant credit in the film -- over the Christmas period."
This leads us to the second article, by Charles Moore. Moore reminds us of much of what Baroness Thatcher was able to accomplish. She rose from middle-class roots (her father was a storekeeper), rare enough in British politics. She was and is the only woman who ever headed a British political party, and the first female prime minister anywhere in the Anglophone world. And she to this day is the longest-serving PM in British history (at least since universal suffrage was instituted). She was in office from 1979 to 1990 and left from internal opposition within her party, not electoral defeat.
She was derisively given the nickname "The Iron Lady" by her staunch enemies, the Soviets. Thatcher embraced the term, and the moniker stuck.
Her first accomplishment was challenging the then-regnant policy of accommodation with -- really, appeasement of -- the growth of the Soviet Empire. Even before Reagan was running for president, she held that NATO should increase its military strength to oppose Soviet expansion and roll back the USSR's control of Eastern Europe.
Thatcher also instituted far-reaching free-market economic reforms, starting with facing down and defeating the communistic mine-workers' union. Here she was aided by the British classical economics think-tank known as the Institute of Economic Affairs, which provided her with much intellectual ammunition for her work.
She brought the top income tax rates down from 98% to 40% during her time in office. She brought the national debt down and privatized key industries. In truth, she ended British socialism. She brought unions under control, with time lost to strikes down by an astounding 94% during her time in office, from 29.5 million working days lost to 1.9 million.
As John Griffing has argued convincingly in a recent piece, the British leftist elites have systematically worked to rewrite history and disparage her economic record (as the American leftist elites have disparaged Reagan's). He shows how her policies increased real employment, decreased inflation, and made the poor and disabled better off. He also explains why her policies were not responsible for the problems experienced by the coal industry and those caused by the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Indeed, Thatcher's -- and Reagan's, and Giuliani's -- success can be attributed to her understanding the strength of free-market economics and the unsustainability of safety-net programs without a healthy private economic sector upon which those programs are parasitic. They advanced this perspective even in the face of withering attacks by the bien-pensant elites in the news media and academia.
But all three were successful also because they shared an unusual personality: a sincere optimism combined with a deep toughness. Thatcher loved her country and believed profoundly in its exceptional history and nature and the greatness of its future. So did Ronald Reagan in America's exceptional nature and destiny, as did Giuliani about New York (as well as his country).
The economic reforms Thatcher and the others were able to institute laid the basis for long-term economic revival, and Thatcher and the others' love of the commonwealth and belief in its future were crucial in rallying the public to force the elites to disregard themselves and support the reforms.
The point here is at base a philosophically fascinating one. Some things -- such as promises, marriages, currencies, and indeed nations -- are social constructs. They have real existence, but -- unlike atoms, molecules, planets, and galaxies -- this existence depends metaphysically upon the agreement of people. A twenty-dollar-bill has the real power to buy you things, but only in a society that recognizes it. (By contrast, a planet, say, exists whether any people recognize it or not.) Great Britain (or any other polity) exists to the degree that its inhabitants recognize it, and it is great only if they believe it so.
Thatcher's belief in the commonwealth (and Reagan's and Giuliani's) was infectious. It rallied a dispirited people.
This leads us to a topic Moore's article doesn't discuss -- namely, the Falkland Islands War, which was a major event in Thatcher's tenure. Four years into her prime-ministership, the Argentine military junta (General Leopoldo Galtieri, Brigadier Lami Dozo, and Admiral Jorge Anaya) decided to settle by military invasion a longstanding dispute over the Falkland Islands (along with the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands), which were (and are) officially British dependent territory, with an ethnically British population.
The Argentine forces invaded the islands, calculating that the British would not fight back. Perhaps if someone else had been PM, the junta would have been correct in their assessment. But they were spectacularly mistaken with regard to the Iron Lady.
She not only fought back, but won the war in a decisive manner, leading to the restoration of British rule over the islands and the subsequent overthrow of the junta.
While the elites in Britain and much of the international community viewed the war as pointless, not Thatcher nor the Falkland Islanders nor the British public viewed it that way.
The British were proud that their armed forces were able to protect their fellow citizens.
The last article ironically suggests that Baroness Thatcher will have the last laugh regarding the Falklands. The news is that new discoveries confirm the presence in the ocean near these islands of huge deposits of petroleum reserves -- as much as 60 billion barrels' worth -- that are easily recoverable. The British may wind up reaping trillions of pounds in revenue from territory that their leader -- so reviled at the time by the elites -- had the courage to defend.
Philosopher Gary Jason is a senior editor of Liberty, and author of the new book Dangerous Thoughts (available through GaryJasonBooks.com).