She had the smooth, cold surface of a porcelain figurine, but her decisiveness made her the most formidable woman in 20th-century politics, and England’s most formidable woman since its greatest sovereign, Elizabeth I. The Argentine junta learned of her decisiveness when it seized the Falklands. The British, too, learned. A Tory MP said, “She cannot see an institution without hitting it with her handbag.”
She aimed to be the moral equivalent of military trauma, shaking her nation into vigor through rigor. As stable societies mature, they resemble long-simmering stews — viscous and lumpy with organizations resistant to change and hence inimical to dynamism. Her program was sound money, laissez faire, social fluidity and upward mobility through self-reliance and other “vigorous virtues.” She is the only prime minister whose name came to denote a doctrine — Thatcherism. (“Churchillian” denotes not a political philosophy but a leadership style.) When she left office in 1990, the trade unions had been tamed by democratizing them, the political argument was about how to achieve economic growth rather than redistribute wealth, and individualism and nationalism were revitalized.
And the Labour Party, shellacked three times, was ready for a post-socialist leader. Tony Blair was part of Thatcher’s legacy.
Time was, Labour considered itself the party of ideas and Tories preferred balancing interests to implementing political philosophy. But by the 1970s, Labour was a creature of a single interest group, the unions, and the Tories, who made Thatcher their leader in 1975, were becoming, as America’s Republicans were becoming, a party of ideas.
Britain has periodically been a laboratory for economic ideas — those of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, the socialism of postwar Labour. Before the ascendancy of Thatcher — a disciple of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — Tories tried to immunize Britain against socialism by administering prophylactic doses of the disease.
But by 1979, Britain’s fundamental political arrangements were at issue: Such was the extortionate power of the unions to paralyze the nation, the writ of Parliament often seemed not to run beyond a few acres along the Thames.
In 1979, she won the most lopsided election since 1945, when there had not been an election for 10 years. In 1983, she became the first Tory since 1924 to win two consecutive elections. In 1987, she won a third. Her 12 consecutive years were an achievement without precedent since the 1832 Reform Act moved Britain, gingerly, toward mass democracy. The most consequential peacetime prime minister since Disraeli, by 1990 she had become the first prime minister to govern through an entire decade since the Earl of Liverpool from 1812 to 1827.
In Britain and America in the 1960s and 1970s, government’s hubris expanded as its competence shrank. Like her soul mate, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher practiced the politics of psychotherapy, giving her nation a pride transplant. Reagan was responding to 17 lacerating years — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis. She was sick and tired of three decades of Britain being described as the Ottoman Empire once was, as “the sick man of Europe.” She set about disrupting settled attitudes and arrangements by enlarging and energizing the middle class, the great engine of social change in every modern society.
Before Thatcher, Britain’s economic problems often were ascribed to national character, and hence were thought immune to remediation. Thatcher thought national character was part of the problem, but that national character is malleable, given bracing economic medicine. Marx’s ghost, hovering over his grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery, must have marveled at this Tory variant of economic determinism.
When Nature was serving up charm and convictions, Thatcher took a double serving of the latter, leaving little room on her plate for the former. But by what has been called her “matriarchal machismo” she usefully demonstrated that a soothing personality is not always necessary in democracy.
Like de Gaulle, she was a charismatic conservative nationalist who was properly resistant to what she called the European federalists’ attempts to “suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the center of a European conglomerate.” She left the British this ongoing challenge: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level.” As long as her brave heart beat, she knew there are no final victories.
George Will is a columnist with the Washington Post group.