The news of the death of Margaret Thatcher is not, at her age and in the condition that she has been in for some years, a great surprise or entirely sad. But in contemplation of the great career she had and the immense service she rendered the United Kingdom and the Western world, it is overwhelmingly sad. In general, Britain’s greatest prime ministers have served successfully in wars with other Great Powers: William Pitt the Elder (in the Seven Years’ War), William Pitt the Younger (in the Napoleonic Wars), Palmerston (in the Crimean War), David Lloyd George (in the Great War), and Winston Churchill (in World War II). Robert Walpole, Robert Peel, John Russell, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, and the Marquess of Salisbury are also generally reckoned to be great prime ministers, either as stylish survivors like Walpole and Salisbury or as great reformers, and especially if their accomplishments were leavened with a tremendous wit, parliamentary legend, and literary cachet, as Disraeli’s and Churchill’s were.
Margaret Thatcher conducted only a secondary war (the Falklands), as Salisbury did (against the Boers), but she conducted it extremely well and to the ultimate benefit of the enemy, as Argentinean democracy, whatever its limitations, resulted from the British rout of the Ruritanian and brutal junta that lumbered out of the Buenos Aires Officers’ Club in their over-bemedaled tunics to oust the nightclub singer who was the widow and successor of Juan Perón in 1976. But as a reformer, who changed the country for the better, she easily surpassed any of the others, and she served longer than any had consecutively — eleven years — since the First Reform Act in 1832 broadened the electorate and democratized the constituency system. In these 180 years, only Gladstone, in four separate terms and a parliamentary career spanning 63 years, and Salisbury, scion of Britain’s most exalted family (the Cecils) and chosen heir of Disraeli, in three terms, served longer than Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a provincial grocer.
It has been a disservice to her great achievements that Margaret Thatcher has been torn down by the Left, ungratefully deserted by her own party, and had her privacy violated by vulgar snobbery and snide cinematography (even if somewhat redeemed by the thespian artistry of Meryl Streep). Not too much should be read into the confused defection of the Conservative party from the legacy of the only person in 180 years who has led them to three consecutive full-term election victories. The British Conservatives leave the selection and retention of leaders to the parliamentary party, and have knifed every leader they have had since Stanley Baldwin, who took a good look at the Nazis and retired in 1937, except those who retired before they could be disembarked. Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and Iain Duncan-Smith were pushed out, and Alec Douglas-Home, John Major, William Hague, and Michael Howard retired before that indignity could be inflicted on them. Sharper by far than a serpent’s tooth is a British Conservative MP’s ingratitude.
When Margaret Thatcher was narrowly elected prime minister in 1979 over James Callaghan, the United Kingdom was on daily audit from the International Monetary Fund, currency controls prevented the removal of more than a few hundred pounds from the country, top corporate and personal income-tax rates were 80 and 98 percent, and those who had the temerity and persistence to enjoy a capital gain (which was hard to come by in Britain in that economic climate) were apt to enjoy the exaltation of soul generated by an effective tax rate of over 100 percent. The entire economy was in the hands of an intellectually corrupt, Luddite trade-union confederation, which chose most of the delegates to any conference of the governing Labour party, and whose shop stewards and craft-unit heads could shut down an entire industry in mid-contract for any reason, from an individual work grievance to the sour grapes generated by a poor round of darts in their local pub (on working hours).
In the year preceding the 1979 election, in what became known as “the winter of discontent,” almost every industry in the country had been shut down by capricious strikes, including the airports, trains, electric power, coal mines, garbage collection, and undertaking. The captains of industry and finance in the City, the style-setters in Mayfair and the West End, the doyennes of Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge, and the denizens of the chancelleries and ministries of Belgravia and Westminster huddled in the cold and dark, dead or alive. Government-owned operations, from the steel industry to the airports, were a cesspool of inefficiency and, in the private sector, large numbers of fictitious jobs were salaried and the proceeds went as sinecures to union favorites or into a pot to be divided at the pleasure of the union bosses. It fell to Margaret Thatcher to redeem Britain from the slough of despond and lassitude in which it had been totally immersed by overindulgence of the workers’ leaders in guilt over the inequalities of British life. These were brought out in vivid relief when the whole nation fought together, with egalitarian valor, through the horrors of the world wars.
The Britain whose headship Margaret Thatcher had assumed had not led a foreign military operation since the debacle at Suez in 1956, in which the British and French, by prearrangement and without consulting the United States, incited an Israeli invasion of the Sinai and then bunglingly invaded Egypt and masqueraded as peacekeepers separating the two combatants. Twenty-five years later, the Argentineans invaded the Falklands and the British forcibly ejected them. Then, as always, Margaret Thatcher did not flinch. Nor did she when the Irish terrorists blew up her hotel at Brighton, killing several of her MPs: She insisted that the conference open exactly on time the next morning and gave extemporaneously an unforgettable call to arms against the terrorists. Nor did she when, as she cleaned up the state-owned industries and disemployed hundreds of thousands of under-worked beneficiaries of decades-old feather-bedding, and she was reviled in huge demonstrations. She did not waffle or waver over deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Italy to counter the Soviet ICBMs already in place in the satellite countries. When asked whether she sought a “nuclear-free Europe,” she instantly replied that she favoured “a war-free Europe.”
When large chunks of her parliamentary party lost their nerve over her free-market economics — a reduction of the top personal income-tax rate to 40 percent, elimination of all currency controls, massive privatization of industry, and right-to-work laws to remove the terror of the labor leadership — she famously told her party conference: “U-turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning.” She was a rock-solid supporter of the Western Alliance and was instrumental in the balanced elimination of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and the satisfactory end of the Cold War. She is generally credited with assisting President George H. W. Bush in determining that Saddam Hussein had to be evicted from Kuwait: “George, this is no time to go wobbly.” She made Britain the fourth economic power in the world, after the U.S., Japan, and Germany, made her prosperous and a low-tax country with declining public debt, improving public services, and steady trade surpluses. As she promised, she restored “Great” to Great Britain. It was, to scale, Elizabeth I’s Gloriana, without Shakespeare to publicize it, and with more than a trace of the Churchillian courage and virtue that first attracted her to a Conservative candidacy under Churchill’s leadership in 1950 and 1951.
She formed her judgment of Germany when the Luftwaffe (in what must rank as one of the greatest long-term strategic blunders of World War II) bombed the town of Grantham, where teenage Margaret Thatcher lived. And she formed her opinion of Americans from the U.S. servicemen, black and white, whom she and her family invited home for dinner after the wartime Sunday services in her local Methodist church. She was always grateful for America’s deliverance of the old world from the evils of Nazism and Communism, always supported the right of Israel to survive and flourish as a Jewish state, and never went cock-a-hoop for sanctions against what she called “the evil and repulsive” apartheid regime in South Africa, because she did not “see how we will make things better by making them worse.” She was a practical person of unswerving principle.
She was a strong woman, but never a mannish one. She was an Oxford alumna (in chemistry) when they were somewhat rare, a Tory candidate for Parliament, an MP, and a female cabinet secretary when they were rare, the first woman leader of a major party in Britain, and the first woman prime minister; she assimilated this meritocratic rise, in the gritted teeth of hidebound British high-Tory traditionalism, with neither diffidence nor triumphalism. When she became the leader of the party, she entered the Carlton Club, the Conservatives’ social headquarters in St. James, and when informed that ladies were not allowed in other than as guests, she replied as she brushed past the doorman: “They are now.” She often worried before speeches, feared greatly for British servicemen she sent into battle, in the Falklands and Iraq, and was never flippant or blasé about the human and historic consequences of important decisions she took. She was always strong, sometimes impatient, but never arrogant. While she was sometimes overbearing with colleagues and others who could stand up for themselves, she was always considerate of and exquisitely courteous to subordinates, and was beloved of the staff at Downing Street and Chequers.
Her successors have squandered most of the national economic strength and political capital she bequeathed to them. She was undercut and stabbed more in the back than the front by her own party, for advocating in respect of Europe precisely what the great majority of the British public now believes — that European cooperation is unambiguously good, but integration should be approached with caution by Britain, until it is not stripping institutions that have served it well for centuries in favor of well-intentioned but unfledged replacements.
Personally, it was a great honor that she (and Lord Carrington) sponsored me as a member of Their Lordships’ House, and that she and the magnificent Sir Denis Thatcher came to Barbara’s and my wedding party, and often to our home. When I was in London in the autumn, her advisers said that she was not reliably well enough to receive me, but they conveyed my best wishes at an appropriate moment and I cherish her warm and gracious reply. When she retired as prime minister, the party chairman, Kenneth Baker, a loyal supporter, said, “We shall not see her like again,” and she said, “It’s a funny old world.” The following day, when she easily rebutted a no-confidence motion, the hard-left Labour MP Dennis Skinner loudly said, to great applause, “You can wipe the floor with this lot, Margaret,” referring to those who would succeed her in both parties. So she could. She was a saintly woman, and one of the great leaders who has arisen in a thousand years of British history.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article was written for the National Post and NRO.