Politics & Policy

Thatcher vs. Decline

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in 1984
We’re not as badly off as Britain in 1979, but we can still learn from the Iron Lady.

Margaret Thatcher is on the cover of Newsweek, or — the next best thing — Meryl Streep is on the cover as the former British prime minister in a new biopic.

Thatcher is a rich theme. If the types who expound on such things didn’t so hate her politics, she’d launch a thousand dissertations on those inexhaustible academic themes of class and gender. As the daughter of a grocer, she was looked down upon as the personification of, in the words of one highfalutin critic, “the worst of the lower-middle-class.” As a woman in a man’s world, she was venomously attacked by her opponents as a “bitch” or “the bag.”

At this moment in our history, though, it is Thatcher’s central purpose that is most important: her unyielding rejection of British decline. She rejected it with every bone in her middle-class body, even though sophisticates scoffed at such a naïve nationalism. She rejected it even though the grandees of her own party said it was inevitable. She rejected it even though she knew reversing it meant forcing a wrenching political and economic crisis.

#ad#The acrid whiff of decline is in the air in America, in the enduringly weak employment picture, in the spiraling debt, in the persistent pessimism about our prospects, and in the intellectual preparation for a “post-American world.” Part of the volatility in the Republican presidential field is the unfulfilled hunger for a Thatcher-like figure. She had the urgency of an emergency-room surgeon, the rhetorical subtlety of a blowtorch, and the conviction of a desert monk. Tory MP John Biffen called her “a tigress surrounded by hamsters.” But she matched her fearlessness with sound judgment and a positively Prussian work ethic. Needless to say, Thatchers aren’t often on offer.

The country she wanted to save was, by the late 1970s, an embarrassing wreck. After World War II, Britain’s leaders had run the ship of state aground on the shoals of socialism. The country was broke and beset by maliciously powerful unions. Humiliatingly, it had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. In 1975, Henry Kissinger told President Ford, “Britain is a tragedy — it has sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing.”

Claire Berlinski, author of the book-length study of Thatcher titled There Is No Alternative, quotes Michael Howard, a subsequent leader of the Tory party: “The air of defeatism which was the prevailing climate of the time was the economic and social equivalent of Munich.”

It took considerable moral courage for Thatcher to insist that practically everyone else was wrong — including the accommodationists in her own party — and that Britain could take an entirely different path. In 1979 she ran on a party manifesto that excoriated declinism. “She had been elected to reverse Britain’s decline,” writes John O’Sullivan, the former Thatcher aide and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, “not to explain it smoothly away like virtually every other political leader.”

It wasn’t enough to rage against Britain’s fate without correctly diagnosing the source of its sickness. As Berlinski notes, Thatcher made an unsparing and comprehensive case against socialism. “In the end,” she thundered, “the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality.”

Bold but never reckless, Thatcher as prime minister undertook a comprehensive free-market program to tame inflation, restrain spending, cut taxes, privatize industries, bring unions to heel, and deregulate the financial industry. At one point, her approval rating dipped to 23 percent, but her vindication was a sustained return to dynamism and growth. Her victory in the Falklands War represented a turning point in national pride. She was Ronald Reagan’s partner in defeating the Soviets. By the end of her career, she had accomplished what Britain’s consensus had once deemed impossible.

In today’s America, the circumstances are very different, but the basic challenge is profoundly the same. Thatcher’s lesson is that decline is inevitable only if its self-fulfilling prophets prevail.

― Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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