The Wall Street Journal

  • April 9, 2013

The World-Changing

Margaret Thatcher

Not since Catherine the Great has there been a woman of such consequence.

By PAUL JOHNSON – A Historian

Margaret Thatcher had more impact on the world than any woman ruler since Catherine the Great of Russia. Not only did she turn around—decisively—the British economy in the 1980s, she also saw her methods copied in more than 50 countries. “Thatcherism” was the most popular and successful way of running a country in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st.


CorbisRonald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House in June 1982.

Her origins were humble. Born Oct. 13, 1925, she was the daughter of a grocer in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham. Alfred Roberts was no ordinary shopkeeper. He was prominent in local government and a man of decided economic and political views. Thatcher later claimed her views had been shaped by gurus like Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek, but these were clearly the icing on a cake baked in her childhood by Councillor Roberts. This was a blend of Adam Smith and the Ten Commandments, the three most important elements being hard work, telling the truth, and paying bills on time.

Hard work took Miss Roberts, via a series of scholarships, to Grantham Girls’ School, Somerville College, Oxford, and two degrees, in chemistry and law. She practiced in both professions, first as a research chemist, then as a barrister from 1954. By temperament she was always a scholarship girl, always avid to learn, and even when prime minister still carried in her capacious handbag a notebook in which she wrote down anything you told her that she thought memorable.

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Editorial page editor Paul Gigot on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. Photo: AP

At the same time, she was intensely feminine, loved buying and wearing smart clothes, had the best head of hair in British politics and spent a fortune keeping it well dressed. At Oxford, punting on the Isis and Cherwell rivers, she could be frivolous and flirtatious, and all her life she tended to prefer handsome men to plain ones. Her husband, Denis Thatcher, whom she married in 1951 and by whom she had a son and daughter, was not exactly dashing but he was rich (oil industry), a capable businessman, a rock on which she could always lean in bad times, and a source of funny 19th-hole sayings.

Denis was amenable (or resigned) to her pursuing a political career, and in 1959 she was elected MP for Finchley, a London suburb. She was exceptionally lucky to secure this rock-solid Tory seat, so conveniently placed near Westminster and her home. She held the seat without trouble until her retirement 33 years later. Indeed, Thatcher was always accounted a lucky politician. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan soon (in 1961) gave her a junior office at Pensions, and when the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, she was fortunate to be allotted to the one seat in the cabinet reserved for a woman, secretary of state for education.

There she kept her nose clean and was lucky not to be involved in the financial and economic wreckage of the disastrous Ted Heath government. The 1970s marked the climax of Britain’s postwar decline, in which “the English disease”—overweening trade-union power—was undermining the economy by strikes and inflationary wage settlements. The Boilermakers Union had already smashed the shipbuilding industry. The Amalgamated Engineers Union was crushing what was left of the car industry. The print unions were imposing growing censorship on the press. Not least, the miners union, under the Stalinist Arthur Scargill, had invented new picketing strategies that enabled them to paralyze the country wherever they chose.

Attempts at reform had led to the overthrow of the Harold Wilson Labour government in 1970, and an anti-union bill put through by Heath led to the destruction of his majority in 1974 and its replacement by another weak Wilson government that tipped the balance of power still further in the direction of the unions. The general view was that Britain was “ungovernable.”

Among Tory backbenchers there was a growing feeling that Heath must go. Thatcher was one of his critics, and she encouraged the leader of her wing of the party, Keith Joseph, to stand against him. However, at the last moment Joseph’s nerve failed him and he refused to run. It was in these circumstances that Thatcher, who had never seen herself as a leader, let alone prime minister, put herself forward. As a matter of courtesy, she went to Heath’s office to tell him that she was putting up for his job. He did not even look up from his desk, where he was writing, merely saying: “You’ll lose, you know”—a characteristic combination of bad manners and bad judgment. In fact she won handsomely, thereby beginning one of the great romantic adventures of modern British politics.

The date was 1975, and four more terrible years were to pass before Thatcher had the opportunity to achieve power and come to Britain’s rescue. In the end, it was the unions themselves who put her into office by smashing up the James Callaghan Labour government in the winter of 1978-79—the so-called Winter of Discontent—enabling the Tories to win the election the following May with a comfortable majority.

Thatcher’s long ministry of nearly a dozen years is often mistakenly described as ideological in tone. In fact Thatcherism was (and is) essentially pragmatic and empirical. She tackled the unions not by producing, like Heath, a single comprehensive statute but by a series of measures, each dealing with a particular abuse, such as aggressive picketing. At the same time she, and the police, prepared for trouble by a number of ingenious administrative changes allowing the country’s different police forces to concentrate large and mobile columns wherever needed. Then she calmly waited, relying on the stupidity of the union leaders to fall into the trap, which they duly did.

She fought and won two pitched battles with the two strongest unions, the miners and the printers. In both cases, victory came at the cost of weeks of fighting and some loss of life. After the hard men had been vanquished, the other unions surrendered, and the new legislation was meekly accepted, no attempt being made to repeal or change it when Labour eventually returned to power. Britain was transformed from the most strike-ridden country in Europe to a place where industrial action is a rarity. The effect on the freedom of managers to run their businesses and introduce innovations was almost miraculous and has continued.

Thatcher reinforced this essential improvement by a revolutionary simplification of the tax system, reducing a score or more “bands” to two and lowering the top rates from 83% (earned income) and 98% (unearned) to the single band of 40%.

She also reduced Britain’s huge and loss-making state-owned industries, nearly a third of the economy, to less than one-tenth, by her new policy of privatization—inviting the public to buy from the state industries, such as coal, steel, utilities and transport by bargain share offers. Hence loss-makers, funded from taxes, became themselves profit-making and so massive tax contributors.

This transformation was soon imitated all over the world. More important than all these specific changes, however, was the feeling Thatcher engendered that Britain was again a country where enterprise was welcomed and rewarded, where businesses small and large had the benign blessing of government, and where investors would make money.

As a result Britain was soon absorbing more than 50% of all inward investment in Europe, the British economy rose from the sixth to the fourth largest in the world, and its production per capita, having been half that of Germany’s in the 1970s, became, by the early years of the 21st century, one-third higher.

The kind of services that Thatcher rendered Britain in peace were of a magnitude equal to Winston Churchill’s in war. She also gave indications that she might make a notable wartime leader, too. When she first took over, her knowledge of foreign affairs was negligible. Equally, foreigners did not at first appreciate that a new and stronger hand was now in control in London. There were exceptions. Ronald Reagan, right from the start, liked what he heard of her. He indicated that he regarded her as a fellow spirit, even while still running for president, with rhetoric that was consonant with her activities.

Once Reagan was installed in the White House, the pair immediately reinvigorated the “special relationship.” It was just as well. Some foreigners did not appreciate the force of what the Kremlin was beginning to call the Iron Lady. In 1982, the military dictatorship in Argentina, misled by the British Foreign Offices’s apathetic responses to threats, took the hazardous step of invading and occupying the British Falkland Islands. This unprovoked act of aggression caught Thatcher unprepared, and for 36 hours she was nonplused and uncertain: The military and logistical objections to launching a combined-forces counterattack from 8,000 miles away were formidable.

But reassured by her service chiefs that, given resolution, the thing could be done, she made up her mind: It would be done, and thereafter her will to victory and her disregard of losses and risks never wavered. She was also assured by her friend Reagan that, short of sending forces, America would do all in its considerable power to help—a promise kept. Thus began one of the most notable campaigns in modern military and moral history, brought to a splendid conclusion by the unconditional surrender of all the Argentine forces on the islands, followed shortly by the collapse of the military dictatorship in Buenos Aires.

This spectacular success, combined with Thatcher’s revival of the U.K. economy, enabled her to win a resounding electoral victory in 1983, followed by a third term in 1987. Thatcher never had any real difficulty in persuading the British electorate to back her, and it is likely that, given the chance, she would have won her fourth election in a row.

But it was a different matter with the Conservative Party, not for nothing once categorized by one of its leaders as the “stupid party.” Some prominent Tories were never reconciled to her leadership. They included in particular the supporters of European federation, to which she was implacably opposed, their numbers swollen by grandees who had held high office under her but whom she had dumped without ceremony as ministerial failures. It was, too, a melancholy fact that she had become more imperious during her years of triumph and that power had corrupted her judgment.

This was made clear when she embarked on a fundamental reform of local-government finance. The reform itself was sensible, even noble, but its presentation was lamentable and its numerous opponents won the propaganda battle hands down. In the midst of this disaster, her Europhile opponents within her party devised a plot in 1990 to overthrow her by putting up one of their number (sacked from the cabinet for inefficiency) in the annual leadership election. Thatcher failed to win outright and was persuaded by friends to stand down. Thus ended one of the most remarkable careers in British political history.

Thatcher’s strongest characteristic was her courage, both physical and moral. She displayed this again and again, notably when the IRA tried to murder her during the Tory Party Conference in 1984, and nearly succeeded, blowing up her hotel in the middle of the night. She insisted on opening the next morning’s session right on time and in grand style. Immediately after courage came industry. She must have been the hardest-working prime minister in history, often working a 16-hour day and sitting up all night to write a speech. Her much-tried husband once complained, “You’re not writing the Bible, you know.”

She was not a feminist, despising the genre as “fashionable rot,” though she once made a feminist remark. At a dreary public dinner of 500 male economists, having had to listen to nine speeches before being called herself, she began, with understandable irritation: “As the 10th speaker, and the only woman, I wish to say this: the cock may crow but it’s the hen who lays the eggs.”

Her political success once again demonstrates the importance of holding two or three simple ideas with fervor and tenacity, a virtue she shared with Ronald Reagan. One of these ideas was that the “evil empire” of communism could be and would be destroyed, and together with Reagan and Pope John Paul II she must be given the credit for doing it.

Among the British public she aroused fervent admiration and intense dislike in almost equal proportions, but in the world beyond she was recognized for what she was: a great, creative stateswoman who left the world a better and more prosperous place, and whose influence will reverberate well into the 21st century.

Mr. Johnson is a historian.

The Wall Street Journal
  • April 9, 2013

The Genius of Thatcherism Will Endure

No tolerance for deficits or the ‘pre-emptive cringe’—a message for politics today.


Seldom does the emergence of a single individual undeniably change the course of history. It was true of Winston Churchill becoming prime minister in May 1940, of course, but normally one person’s efforts cannot significantly alter the tide of human events. Yet undoubtedly such a person was Margaret Thatcher, for it is no exaggeration to say that she saved Great Britain from bankruptcy, made it great again, won a war and with Ronald Reagan helped sound the death knell of Soviet communism.

Yet her obituaries on both the left and the right hint that her battles were all in the past, that she was solely a figure from an earlier era, whose struggles bear no relation to today’s politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. The principles that she established—which together form the coherent political program called Thatcherism—have perhaps more relevance now than at any time since the 1980s. To write her off as a historical figure is to discard the timelessness, and thus the most important aspect, of her political thought.

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Columnist Bret Stephens on the foreign policy lessons of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Photos: AP

With the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1) nowadays adopting what she once described in another context as “the politics of the pre-emptive cringe” toward Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb, we could do with the late Lady Thatcher’s clear-sighted and full-throated denunciation of pusillanimity in international affairs. When she was in power, her attitude toward dictatorships’ threats and bullying—be it the Argentine junta over the Falkland Islands or Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War—was precisely the tough and uncompromising stance from which the P5+1 group constantly shrinks. The advice she gave to President George H.W. Bush in 1990—”This is no time to go wobbly, George”—is desperately needed today.

Similarly, her support for Israel was lifelong and unwavering. When asked about anti-Semitism she said: “I simply did not understand it,” and she denounced members of her own constituency association who excluded Jews from the local golf club. When asked in later life what her greatest single achievement was, she replied that it had come in the late 1930s, when she was 12 and raised money to help save a 17-year-old Austrian Jewish girl from the Nazis by bringing her to Britain.

Margaret Thatcher hated deficits with all the power that a grocer’s daughter might be expected to hate indebtedness. Despite inheriting a disastrous economy from the Labour Party in 1979—the top income-tax rate was 98% and public-sector strikes were crippling British industry—she managed to increase growth and productivity to such an extent that she could leave office with a top tax rate of 40% and growth rates mirroring those of her beloved America. Sadly, her mind slipped into the shadows in the early part of this century, otherwise it would have been highly enlightening to hear her opinion of the astronomical deficits being run by the Obama administration today.

Similarly, it would be marvelous to hear her assess the state of the European Union today, as every one of her predictions of the dangers of economic and monetary union have been shown to be correct. Lord Salisbury once said that the four cruellest words in the English language are “I told you so.” How often did Margaret Thatcher tell Brussels and Europhiles that a system in which all European economies of whatever size, shape and type were strait-jacketed into uniform interest and exchange rates would inevitably fail? She saw the danger. Perhaps she could point the way out.

When it was proposed that the British pound should give way to the euro, she memorably cried out in the House of Commons, “No! No! No!” Britons should look at Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy today and laud her for her foresight, yet it was over the question of European integration that she was ultimately defenestrated by a small but determined cabal within the Conservative Party.

“Democracy isn’t just about deducing what the people want,” she once said. “Democracy is leading the people as well.” How often does one see that in today’s opinion-poll, focus-group-driven politics? Of the political U-turns that “the wets” within her own party so wanted in 1981, she told the Tory Party Conference: “You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning.”

Unlike too many politicians today, she had a visceral sense of politics—and of right and wrong. On the bicentenary of the fall of the Bastille, for example, her guts told her that it was wrong to join the French in celebrating a revolution that brought bloodshed, war and republicanism, so she forbade the British ambassador to attend, amid much grinding of teeth in the Foreign Office. Can one imagine any modern politician making such a magnificent gesture today?

Similarly she reveled in the abuse that her enemies directed at her. When the Soviet propaganda ministry pinned the label “Iron Lady” on her, it was meant to draw attention to her inflexibility. “Any leader has to have a certain amount of steel in them,” she replied, “so I am not that put out being called the Iron Lady.” How much does the West today need statesmen who treat personal popularity as an unimportant byproduct of the larger battles that they wish to fight, and who trust the people to re-elect them even if voters don’t particularly like them?

As someone who knew her well, I can attest that there was plenty to like as well as to admire in Margaret Thatcher, but she never put likability high on her list. She had a job to do. When a few years ago Hillary Clinton likened herself to Margaret Thatcher, it would have been easy to accept what was certainly intended as a compliment, but instead Lady Thatcher expostulated: “She’s not in the least like me; I know because I’m not in the least like her!”

Now that Lady Thatcher is dead, we must not turn her into a mere cozy historical figure, shorn of the ideological convictions that are for the ages. Thatcherism will always remain, and the world is better for it.

Mr. Roberts, a historian, was appointed by Margaret Thatcher as a Trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust.

The Wall Street Journal

  • April 9, 2013

Not for Turning

The woman who saved Britain with a message of freedom.

In that dreary winter of 1979, the piles of uncollected trash in London’s Finsbury Park seemed to stretch for miles. The garbagemen were on strike. So too, at one time or another, were hospital workers, ambulance drivers, truck drivers, railwaymen. Also gravediggers: In Liverpool, corpses had to be warehoused as they awaited burial—yet another long queue that socialist Britain had arranged for its patient masses.

This was the “Winter of Discontent,” when Great Britain came about as close to economic collapse as at nearly any point in its peacetime history, and it was the country Margaret Thatcher inherited when, on May 3, she defeated the Labour government of James Callaghan to become Prime Minister—the first woman in the office and 49th in a line that includes some of the greatest figures of Western civilization: Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, the Duke of Wellington, William Pitt the Younger.


Thatcher died in London Monday, at age 87, having earned her place among the greats. This is not simply because she revived Britain’s economy, though that was no mean achievement. Nor is it because she held office longer than any of her predecessors, though this also testifies to her political skill. She achieved greatness because she articulated a set of vital ideas about economic freedom, national self-respect and personal virtue, sold them to a skeptical public and then demonstrated their efficacy.

Consider economic policy. Britain in 1979 had a double-digit inflation rate, a top income tax rate of 83% and rising unemployment. Public expenditures accounted for 42.5% of GDP. There were price, dividend, currency and wage controls, although the last of these were flouted by trade unions on whose support the Labour government depended.


Corbis Margaret Thatcher, 1984

The government accounted for about 30% of the work force. The state controlled most major industries: British Aerospace, BA.LN -0.72%British Airways, IAG.MC +1.83%British Telecom, BT.A.LN +0.90%British Steel, British Leyland, the British National Oil Corporation, Associated British Ports, Cable and Wireless, Rolls Royce. What was left of a private economy was smothered in red tape.

Most British policy makers of the time had no real grasp of economics: no idea what caused inflation; no idea how to run state-owned enterprises (much less that government shouldn’t run businesses at all); no idea—beyond increasing civil-service rolls—how to create jobs. Worse, the cluelessness was bipartisan. “The Tories loosened the corset of socialism,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs. “They never removed it.”

Thatcher was different, an “instinctive conservative” whose economic philosophy drew from her father’s observations of stocking a grocery. Her memoir recalls her youthful wonder at “The great complex romance of international trade which recruited people from all over the world to ensure that a family in Grantham could have on its table rice from India, coffee from Kenya, sugar from the West Indies.” She had also, with her cabinet colleague Keith Joseph, spent years transforming those instincts into practical theories for governance.

And so it went for the next 11 years, as Thatcher and her government stopped printing excess money to kill inflation, cut marginal tax rates to unleash private incentives, privatized public housing so the poor could own their own homes, did away with currency, price and wage controls to eliminate the distortions they imposed on the economy, curbed runaway spending and sold off one state asset after another so they might be competently and profitably managed. 

All this was done despite sharp short-term economic shocks and in the teeth of ferocious resistance, particularly from trade unions. In 1984, the coal miners union of Arthur Scargill went on strike for nearly a year. Similar strikes had brought past governments to their knees, but Thatcher, in a feat of immense courage and political skill, remained immovable and eventually won public opinion to her side. As she had famously said of herself a few years earlier (without being believed), “the lady is not for turning.”

But staring down labor unions was the least of it. In March 1979, a faction of the Irish Republican Army murdered Airey Neave, her campaign manager. Eleven years later, they murdered Ian Gow, her former private secretary. There would be IRA outrages at the Harrods department store, in London’s Hyde and Regent’s Parks, in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and, in October 1984, at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Thatcher was herself the principal target. None of this cowed Thatcher, who understood that the main threat IRA terrorism posed wasn’t so much to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland as it was to the very concept of majority rule.

The same went for the Falklands. Critics of that war paint it as a display of jingoism, carried out chiefly for Thatcher’s political convenience. Yet the issues at stake were larger than the possession of some rocky and frigid islands in the South Atlantic. Would Argentina’s unprovoked aggression be resisted or rewarded? Would 1,800 Falklanders—loyal to the Crown, English-speaking—be consigned without real protest to foreign rule and dictatorship?

There should never have been any serious argument over these questions, but there was. And looking back, it’s remarkable how much Thatcher was willing to risk in a fight lesser statesmen would have skipped. Britain lost six ships and suffered hundreds of casualties in the war. But in fighting Thatcher showed that Britain was prepared to defend its rights, its interests and its principles—intangible assets of nationhood that had once made the country great.

These assets served more than Britain. Thatcher understood that Britain’s fight was also the West’s, and vice versa. So she agreed, over massive protests, to the stationing of U.S. nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common as a counterforce to the Soviet SS-20; and she agreed to let the U.S. launch air strikes from British bases against Libya, in retaliation for Moammar Gadhafi’s terrorist campaigns in Europe. In summer 1990 she steeled President George H.W. Bush after Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait: “This is no time to go wobbly.”

Deeper than this was Thatcher’s sympathy with what is best in America: freedom, enterprise, opportunity, optimism and the urge for self-improvement. No doubt this reflected Thatcher’s background as a grocer’s daughter who’d risen on her own talent and effort.

It did not, however, always reflect British or even Tory opinion, which was (and remains) prone to seeing the U.S. as a coarse, overbearing ally. Preserving the “special relationship” is more than the default option of British leadership: It is a political choice that has to be defended against alternatives such as “Europe.” Thatcher, like Churchill before her and Tony Blair afterward, always made the choice to remain close to America, one reason the three are often admired more in the U.S. than at home.

Over Thatcher’s long tenure there were bound to be misjudgments. Whatever the policy merits of her “poll tax,” its implementation was badly handled and ultimately led to her political downfall. A larger blot were the terms of the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule with no guarantee of democratic self-rule. We remember her vigorous defense of that decision when she visited our offices in the mid-1980s, which she punctuated by asking: “Do I make myself clear?” She had, but the colony’s six million British subjects deserved better from such a champion of freedom.


Still, the failures dim next to the overall legacy. Thatcher came to power when Britain and the West were in every kind of crisis: social, economic, moral and strategic. Along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, she showed the world the way out. She believed in the inherent right of free men to craft their own destinies, and in the capacity of free nations to resist and overcome every kind of tyranny and injustice.

These were the right beliefs then as now. She was the right woman at the right time.


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