In 1975, when asked to explain why Margaret Thatcher was poised to take over the Tory party, the irascible British satirist Malcolm Muggeridge replied that it was all due to television — and the fact that the telegenic Thatcher had a “certain imbecile charm.”
That was one of the nicer things said about an “imbecile” who earned a degree in chemistry from Oxford and became a lawyer while studying at home. (She sent her bar application from the maternity ward while recovering from delivering twins.)
One lesson here is that being underestimated is a great gift in politics. Ronald Reagan was dubbed an “amiable dunce” before he was known as the “Teflon president,” and Thatcher had imbecile charm before she was dubbed — by the Soviets — the “Iron Lady.”
When the news of Thatcher’s death broke Monday, I went back to the archives of National Review to look at what William F. Buckley (my former boss) had to say about her when she was a fresh face. Dismissing the skeptics, Buckley was impressed by her personal story, given that she hailed from a “party that has tended, when looking for a leader, to thumb through lists of unemployed Etonians.” He concluded, “It is my guess she bears watching. Put me down as a fan.”
Just over four years later, Buckley penned a column with the headline: “Margaret Is My Darling.” The day before the elections, he had wired her (for you kids, that means he sent her a telegram. It’s like a paper text message. Google it): “I AND WHAT’S LEFT OF THE FREE WORLD ARE ROOTING FOR YOU, LOVE.”
Buckley rightly identified the importance of Thatcher’s victory. “For over a generation we have been assaulted — castrated is probably closer to the right word — by the notion that socialism is the wave of the future.” The arguments between the major parties in the West had almost invariably been disagreements over the pace of descent into one or another flavor of statism. It “has always been possible for the leftward party to say about the rightward party that its platform is roughly identical to the platform of the leftward party one or two elections back.”
This was certainly true in the U.S., though Buckley may have overstated things when he wrote that “Roosevelt would have considered the Republican Party platform of Richard Nixon as radical beyond the dreams of his brain-trusters.”
What’s indisputable, however, is that the Tories and the Republicans alike suffered from an excess of “me-tooism.” From Thomas Dewey through Gerald Ford — minus Barry Goldwater’s staggering (and staggeringly influential) defeat — Republicans put forward leaders who promised to do what liberals were doing, but in a more responsible way. The pattern was even worse in Britain, which had thrown out Winston Churchill, at least partly, for wanting to trim back the welfare state.
For decades, conservatism failed to offer an alternative. This was why economist Friedrich Hayek said he couldn’t call himself a conservative. It has, he wrote, “invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.”
One reason for this tendency is that in democracies, politicians usually can’t withstand the short-term backlash that comes with meaningful long-term free-market reforms. Thatcher was expected to follow the pattern. When it became clear that Thatcher intended to actually practice what she’d been preaching, the press demanded she make a U-turn. She didn’t. She explained in a defining speech in 1980, “The lady’s not for turning.” She had promised voters, to borrow a phrase from Barry Goldwater, “a choice, not an echo.” She delivered on it, and Britain is immeasurably better for it.
It’s worth remembering that Thatcher did not destroy the British equivalent of what Americans call liberalism. She destroyed socialism, which was a thriving concern — at least intellectually — in Britain. When Labour decided to get serious about winning elections again, Tony Blair had to repudiate the party’s century-long support for doctrinaire socialism and embrace the market. Soon, Bill Clinton followed suit, bending his party to Reagan’s legacy. Suddenly, liberals were playing the “me-too” game.
That’s one reason the Left still hates her and Reagan so much. Thatcher and Reagan didn’t just force change on their societies, they forced change on their enemies, proving that the wave of the future is not so inevitable after all.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.