Magazine | May 6, 2013, Issue

Leading With Luck

Thatcher had virtue and good fortune

Margaret Thatcher was an exemplary figure, and there are endless dimensions to her interest. One of them is that she had both a lot of virtue and a lot of luck. Virtue and luck do not always go together, but they are certainly connected in her case, and they may tell us something about contemporary politics. She had an influential father, who taught her to be a good girl, work hard, and make something of herself, and she obeyed. And, as we shall see, she did so without the priggishness that this summary might suggest.

She succeeded early in life, acquiring a career, marriage, children, and a seat in Parliament. In femspeak terms, she rapidly “had it all.” Throughout her career she was extremely kind to her associates, and in very feminine ways. Britain’s scandal-crazed tabloids looked in vain for cracks in the Thatcher façade. They found none. At the same time, she was notably tolerant of the moral wanderings of colleagues.

Now for luck: After the Conservative defeat at the 1974 elections, she and Sir Keith Joseph led a movement to adopt more free-market solutions as Conservative policy. Both had been in the cabinet, but Joseph, as the senior figure, would normally have been the standard-bearer of that movement in the election for party leadership that followed. But Keith had made an unfortunate speech in which he had suggested that the lower classes should have fewer children, and was thus not the ideal standard-bearer.

It is today generally agreed that the delightful and saintly Keith Joseph would not have made a successful prime minister in any case. And Thatcher already had strong supporters who thought she would probably be a better choice. But had Keith not fallen briefly by the roadside, she probably would not have won the leadership, for she would loyally have supported Keith. She was nominated, and she won. And it had nothing at all to do with some popular campaign to get more women into the higher reaches of British politics.

That is perhaps one reason why feminists are in general ambivalent at best about Thatcher. This was a time when gender was thought to rule women out of contention for political leadership, a view that Thatcher herself sometimes thought was correct. The point is, as always, that quality also counts in these matters. The Labour prime minister of the time remarked on hearing of her leadership: “We’ve won the next election.” He did not know what he faced!

Thatcher had several years before the 1979 election in which to learn the mechanics of statesmanship — voice, tone, dress, speech, and so on. And by 1979, the mad ambitions of the trade unions that had been so fatal to Britain’s vitality had got entirely out of hand. In the widespread strikes of the time, rubbish filled the streets and (as the legend has it) the dead went unburied. The “winter of discontent” created perfect campaigning conditions for an opposition, and the Conservatives won. It was then that Thatcher began to face the marvelous set of enemies whose defeat set her on the course to greatness.

We might begin with the 364 academic economists who judged that her economic policies could not work. Today, an assemblage of 364 economists attacking a government would merely be taken as evidence that the government must be doing something right, but in 1981, most people had not yet begun to understand the degree to which right-thinking and partisanship had been sweeping through the groves of academe. It took courage for Thatcher to defy them, but she did, and she was of course right to do so.

Next, the Falkland Islands were invaded by the Argentines — and not just by any Argentines, but by the military of one of the nastiest regimes of recent times, one whose monstrous conduct is still emerging. The “wets” in Thatcher’s cabinet, like those today, were dedicated internationalists and wanted the problem handed over to negotiation and international committees. This would, among other considerations, have risked subjecting British subjects to a vicious despotism. Thatcher took the enormous risk of sending military forces to expel them, and the decade-long feebleness of British life was clearly at an end. She had some American help, but American policy was distracted by its concern with Latin American opinion.

#page# It was a further part of her luck to have Ronald Reagan in the White House. They obviously saw eye to eye on many things. Indeed, they had one remarkable moral characteristic that should be noted: They were both conviction politicians who knew very clearly what they supported (freedom above all), but who also had no trouble in talking to people with very different views. There was no waffle about negotiation and open-mindedness — merely a sensible (and up to a point amused) view of the variety of human judgment. It is to this, and to the greatness of Mikhail Gorbachev, that we owe the end of the Cold War. There were giants around, we might say, at that time, and they have shaped some of the better parts of our world.

Thatcher’s last bit of luck in this area came with the challenge from Arthur Scargill and the miners’ union, which had the power to plunge Britain into darkness and had already bent the government to its will on several occasions. Thatcher had withdrawn from an earlier challenge because she had known she could not win, and in the meantime she had built up stocks of coal. When challenged again, she was ready for the contest, and the miners were overconfident — indeed, Scargill did not even ballot his members. It was a bruising struggle, and much bitterness remains. But she won, through being smart, and lucky in her opponent, and the irony is that had those coal mines not closed, it would today be the Socialist Greens who would be agitating to close them on environmental grounds. Such is politics.

Thatcher, then, revived a moribund Britain — and many people still hate her for it. In fact the dimmer creatures on the left have twisted her words out of all recognition in order to construct a figure they can satisfactorily hate, and much can be learned about political evil in the way it was done.

Interviewed in a popular magazine, Thatcher happened to remark: “There’s no such thing as society.” This was simply to observe that “society” is an abstract concept, the sum of myriad individual interactions, and does not itself operate as a cause in human affairs: “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people ” For devout socialists, however, the idea of society has taken the place of God in some theologies: It is the ultimate cause of everything. Thatcher’s remark was thus to them the equivalent of a declaration of atheism, and it caused uproar. It was absurdly taken to advocate a dog-eat-dog attitude of competition between the members of any society. This is so wild a distortion as to be almost pathological, and it tells us something about the rhetorical condition of politics in contemporary Anglophone states.

Finally we might observe that among the Thatcher virtues is patriotism, and this virtue is a standing challenge to the strongest fashion of our time. Not many people still take Marxism seriously, but the passion to find some way of perfecting the world is no less powerful than it was in the past. One of the most powerful salvationist currents of our time is the belief that democratic national states are merely self-interested and that the way to a rational world is to be found in transferring power to international organizations, lawyers, and bureaucrats. But Thatcher, like Reagan, had the confidence of a modern free society — one that would not tolerate being overridden by the votes of often despotic statelets making up the current international system of our time.

– Mr. Minogue is an emeritus professor of political science and an honorary fellow at the London School of Economics, and a former president of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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