Today we say goodbye to a towering figure of the 20th century. With the passing of Margaret Thatcher, we’ve sadly lost the last living member of that great triumvirate that included Ronald Reagan and John Paul II — those giants who defeated the evil empire of Soviet Communism and allowed the liberation of its captive nations. We’ve also lost one of the great champions of economic freedom and democratic ideals.
Many will focus on the fact that Margaret Thatcher’s career was a collection of “firsts” for women — she was the first and youngest female Conservative-party member to stand for election, the first woman to hold the title Leader of the Opposition, and the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom.
But Thatcher not only broke a glass ceiling; she broke a class ceiling. She was a grocer’s daughter from the back of beyond who advanced to the height of power in a class-conscious society. Like her friend Ronald Reagan, she was an underestimated underdog and political outsider. Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Evening Standard, once said, “There was no Thatcher group within the Tory Party. . . . She was utterly and completely on her own. She simply was an outsider in every way.”
She was at heart a populist taking on the Conservative party’s old guard, who disdainfully referred to her as “That Woman.” The disdain was mutual. She referred to them as “the not so grand grandees.” As Thatcher later said, “It didn’t matter what they called me as long as I got the job done. I mean, to me they were ‘Those Grandees.’ They just don’t know what life is like. They haven’t been through it. And eventually if they didn’t help our cause, they had to go. But it didn’t bother me too much that they were patronizing like that. Frankly, the people, who are the true gentlemen, deal with others for what they are, not who their father was. Let’s face it: Maybe it took ‘That Woman’ to get things done, and the real reason why they said it was because they knew they just hadn’t got it within them to see things through.”
In taking on “Those Grandees,” she wasn’t afraid of having strong opinions and fighting for them — something the establishment often found distasteful. British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons recalled a conversation about this: “She said, ‘You know, Tony, I’m very proud that I don’t belong to your class.’ I said, ‘Prime Minister, what class do you think I belong to?’ She said, ‘I’m talking of course about upper-middle-class intellectuals who see everybody else’s point of view and have none of their own.’” And, of course, like all conservatives and trailblazers, she had to endure more than her share of vicious media attacks. Sir Archie Hamilton once recounted how he asked Thatcher whether she read the daily newspapers. “‘Oh no!’ she replied, ‘They make such hurtful and damaging remarks about me and my family, that if I ever read the papers every day, I could never get on with the job I am here to do.’” I know exactly what she meant. And as she said, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
Anyone witnessing her brilliant debating skills in the House of Commons can understand why her opponents were reduced to childish attacks. She passionately demolished all their arguments with facts.
Thatcher didn’t have powerful patronage. All she had were powerful ideas, ideas based on liberty. During a meeting about the Conservative party’s best course to take in the economic crisis of the 1970s, some so-called pragmatist was arguing in favor of a Third Way between free-market capitalism and socialism. Before he was even finished, Thatcher reached for her handbag, pulled out a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, threw it on the table, and said, “This is what we believe in!”
She put those beliefs into action. Like Reagan, she was a leader for whom word and deed were one and the same. A leader of a conservative think tank behind the Thatcher revolution famously said, “We were not interested in political office for the Conservative party. We were interested in power for them to get things done.” And that’s exactly what Thatcher did. While others in her party were interested in holding on to political office and overseeing “the orderly management of [Britain’s] decline,” she actually radically reformed a broken system and brought it back to free-market principles, leaving her country stronger, wealthier, and a leader in the world when just a decade before it had been dismissed as “the sick man of Europe.” Her push to privatize British industry and lower tax rates led to a substantial economic expansion and became a model for other countries shrugging off the yoke of socialism.
She was a visionary always ahead of her time because her vision was rooted in time-tested truths about man’s fallibilities and aspirations. Today, in light of Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, all observers can recognize the wisdom of her unflinching defense of national sovereignty and democratic accountability. I’m sure there are many Europeans today who wish their leaders were as prescient as Britain’s Thatcher in her skepticism of ceding control to a centralized continental bureaucracy.
She was above all a patriot who loved her “Land of Hope and Glory” with all her heart and believed in its greatness and its history as the “Mother of the Free.” As her current successor in 10 Downing Street said, “She didn’t just lead our country; she saved our country.” And she changed the world in the process.
The grocer’s daughter from Grantham became freedom’s Iron Lady at a time when too many were soft and equivocating. She is sadly gone now, but her intrepid will, her time-tested ideals, her unfailing trust in what is right and just, and her legacy, as solid as iron, will live on forever.
— Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, was the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president.