The issue: Prime minister left a substantial mark on her country
Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87, was the most influential British prime minister in U.S. politics since Winston Churchill.
Churchill was close to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thatcher to President Ronald Reagan, whom she affectionately called “Ronnie.” If anything, she was a more effective and forceful advocate of free enterprise than Reagan.
THE FIRST WOMAN to become British prime minister, Thatcher led the Conservative Party to three successive voting victories and governed from May 1979 to November 1990.
Thatcher was the daughter of a shopkeeper — a grocer, a fact that the class-conscious British press invariably mentions high up in her obituaries. In fact, she literally did live over the store.
She inherited the habits of hard work, tenacity and thrift — and an interest in politics. After graduation from the University of Oxford, no small feat for a shop girl, she entered Conservative Party politics. After nine years of trying, she won a seat in Parliament. She was willing to do the thankless, tedious tasks that other politicians avoided, and by 1970 was rewarded with a Cabinet post.
The ruling Labour Party was exhausted, her Tories had an unimpressive line of male candidates and England, in any case, seemed almost ungovernable. Thatcher at first had the advantage of being regularly underestimated by both friend and foe. But, in 1979, she led the Tories to victory and became prime minister, with the condescending consensus that her tenure would be a short one.
THATCHER INHERITED a nation that was on its way to Third World status because of an ossified and truculent trade-union movement, which dominated the opposition Labour Party. The country was subject to constant, crippling wildcat strikes — by hospital workers, railway workers, truck drivers, gravediggers, manufacturing workers — at state-owned enterprises that Labour had nationalized after World War II. Their products were notorious for unreliability and regular unavailability.
Thatcher was under enormous pressure to just give the workers what they wanted under the common delusion that somehow the means to pay for it would suddenly materialize.
She showed her mettle by crushing a yearlong strike by the powerful mineworkers’ union in 1984-85, a victory that did much to reshape the economic and social order of Britain.
That victory was more important but less spectacular than her 1982 victory in the Falklands Islands. She faced down U.S. Secretary of State Al Haig, who Reagan had dispatched to talk her out of a counter invasion. Her credo was to give the order and “let the military get on with it.” The invading Argentines were ousted in less than three months.
The Russian press christened her the “Iron Lady.” One of her most prescient foreign-policy formulations was that Mikhail Gorbachev, then the leader of the Soviet Union, was “a man we can do business with.”
THATCHER’S STEELY interest in U.S. politics continued after Reagan left office in early 1989. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the following months, as the United Nations was organizing a U.S.-led coalition to free Kuwait — a move believed by many to be a disaster in the making — she told President George H.W. Bush, “This is not the time to go wobbly.”
Thatcher was forced out as prime minister in 1990, a combination of a political misjudgment on a tax issue and the feeling among her rivals that it was somebody else’s turn in 10 Downing St.
Thatcher left a substantial mark on British politics. She also rubbed off on U.S. politics and politicians. Let’s hope her good qualities, like courage and tenacity, survive her.