(In memory of Dame Thatcher — the aptly titled “Iron Lady”—I re-print this lesson, originally published in 2002. Maggie Thatcher, R.I.P.)
In the long history of Great Britain’s monarchy, men ruled almost constantly, yet the two most memorable reigns were by women, Elizabeth I and Victoria. Something of the same could be said about the nation’s prime ministers. They have all been men, except for one of the most memorable, Margaret “Maggie” Thatcher, who became head of Britain’s Conservative Party this week (Feb 11) in 1975. “The Iron Lady,” as she was called, subsequently became the only British Prime Minister of the 20th Century to be elected to three consecutive terms in office.
As PM, Thatcher’s top priority was to end Britain’s flirtation with Socialism by privatizing as many state-owned industries as possible, while at the same time reducing the power of Britain’s trade unions, which Thatcher believed had prevented Britain from modernizing its economy. She also fought to reduce taxes, cut bureaucratic red tape and encourage home ownership. And last but not least, Thatcher — the daughter of a grocer — worked to hammer the final nail in the coffin of the British class system, which she was convinced stifled the entrepreneurial spirit and prevented talented people, regardless of birth origin, from achieving success.
Thatcher had detractors, especially as unemployment rose in the wake of her privatization plans, and it is probably true that what saved her from being defeated for re-election was Britain’s victory in the Falklands War in 1982 — a war in which Thatcher sent British warships to oust Argentine troops from the tiny Falkland Islands that both Britain and Argentina claimed. However, by the end of her second term the British economy had responded to her initiatives, and the British middle class had rallied to her cause. She was overwhelmingly elected to a third term in 1987.
Maggie Thatcher was (like her soul mate, Ronald Reagan) that rarest of political animals, a conviction politician, and, love her or hate her, her unflinching belief in capitalism and democratic government helped her change Britain in truly fundamental ways. Indeed, it says something about Thatcher that, next to the trade unions and other members of the far Left, the group that fought her the hardest during her time in office was the elitist Tory gentry on the far Right (elements of that Tory elite helped oust her from party leadership in 1990). Both groups preferred the status quo, and Thatcher would have none of it.
Today, of all the honors that a still active Maggie Thatcher has accrued, including the title of Baroness, perhaps the one dearest to her heart is the honor of seeing her name attached to an ideology. To this day, “Thatcherism” affects the national life of Great Britain, and it surely will for years to come.