Margaret Thatcher was not a woman who liked to look back. She never enjoyed watching her appearances on television, and when her office praised her after a victory, she replied by asking what they were going to do next. Only a leader with that kind of commitment could have rescued Britain from the slump in which it was mired in the 1970s.
The quality of national leadership, and of party leadership, is subject to natural ebbs and flows, and Britain’s post-war leadership, after the immediate flush of victory in 1945, ranged from mediocre to dire. It was a nation transfixed by a refusal to make hard choices. Abroad, it was caught up in uncertainly among the Commonwealth, NATO, and Europe, a trio endorsed by Churchill but also increasingly out of date. At home, it was trying to have it all — low unemployment, low inflation, steadily rising government spending, and centrally directed industry — and getting none of it. Above all, it was an era of a tired consensus, of politics without conviction and, by 1979, without much hope.
Thatcher proved the truth of Reagan’s quip that people who talk about America’s problems are really just talking about their own. What Britain needed was a leader with firm convictions who took decisions, and stuck to them. As she put it in 1980, she was “not for turning.” Her record of courage was remarkable — from demanding the retaking of the Falklands in 1982, to surviving an IRA bomb attack in 1984, and to recognizing Gorbachev as a man with whom “we can do business together.” It was precisely her willingness to stand up to Britain’s flabby vested interests that made her controversial. For a nation that too often believed society was a synonym for government, this was a radical challenge, and marked the moment when the Left assumed its current place as a defender of an unsustainable status quo.
Strangely, it was the flabbiest of the interests, the European Union, that ultimately brought her down, the Conservative party then being populated largely by pro-Europeans. In Britain, her legacy is a transformed party, which, below the level of David Cameron, is thoroughly Thatcherite and Euroskeptic. Unhappily, her nation is back in much the same place as it was in 1979: unsure of its place in the world and trapped by the poisonous economic legacy of the Labour party, which after 2000 extended to the nation as a whole the goodies it had saved for the trade unions before 1979. Making choices and having conviction are largely out of fashion in politics today, in Britain and America. Until we recover them, we will be missing the greatest part of Lady Thatcher’s legacy.
— Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations with the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.