Margaret Thatcher was probably the greatest politician since Winston Churchill. Worshipped by conservatives and despised by the left, she did more to change the West politically and socially than anyone else in power. Born a grocer’s daughter, she rose through England’s Conservative Party (the Tories) to become the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century as well as the only woman to have held that post. You can read her Wikipedia entry to find out all the details of her life, but this article will discuss some of the areas in which the “Iron Lady,” a nickname given to her by the Soviets in 1976, made an enormous difference and continues to have a strong influence.
When Thatcher came to power in 1979 by defeating the Labor Party, the UK had just undergone the “Winter of Discontent,” an extremely destructive series of labor strikes. In fact, the UK was a mess. The unions were too powerful, the government was borrowing too much money, taxes were too high and inflation was out of control. She had previously believed men could straighten out all problems, but now realized they couldn’t and began to think a woman could do the job.
Earlier in her career, Thatcher had become an adherent of the economic philosophy of Frederick Hayek, an Austrian economist, and Milton Friedman, an American economist. She became an advocate for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom for business and consumers. Even though it took some years for her policies to succeed, by 1987, inflation was low, unemployment was falling, and the economy was stable and strong. She therefore won a third term as Prime Minister.
Privatisation was also one of the main tenets of Thatcherism. She privatized telephones, gas, BP (British Petroleum), freight, airlines and almost every nationalized industry except railways and the Royal Mail to improve productivity, but expanded government regulation over those industries. What was especially significant was that after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in May 1979, she implemented the Right to Buy in the Housing Act of 1980. The sale price of a council house (a government-owned house) was based on its market valuation but also included a discount to reflect the rents paid by tenants and also to encourage take-up. The legislation gave council tenants the right to buy their council house at a discounted value, depending on how long they had been living in the house, with the proviso that if they sold their house before a minimum period had expired, they would have to pay back a proportion of the discount. The sales were an attractive deal for tenants, and hundreds of thousands of homes were sold. The policy is regarded as one of the major points of Thatcherism.
Thatcher also broke the backs of the labor unions. She believed they undermined democracy and economic performance. Her biggest fight was with the miners. When the head of the miners’ union, Arthur Scargill, called an illegal strike, she refused to meet the union’s demands. After a year, the miners finally conceded, and she closed most of the coal mines in Britain. Because tens of thousands of jobs were lost and entire communities devastated, many union members celebrated her death and danced in the streets.
Even though her domestic policies are still deemed controversial and divisive, there is very little disagreement that in the area of foreign affairs, she helped to change the world. Three years before she became Prime Minister, she gave a speech in which she stated that the Russians were bent on world dominance. Yet while she was in office, she met and became friends with Russian premier Gorbachev. Her friendship with him and her trust in him helped her convince Ronald Reagan that the Cold War was almost over.
She was also renowned for her actions during the Falklands War. When Argentina invaded the Falklands Islands, she chaired the War Cabinet and was considered to be highly capable. Her actions during the war made her extremely popular and helped her win her second term.
What may be of interest to us in the present was her dislike of the then European Community (EC), the forerunner to the EU. Even though she supported the UK’s entry in the EC, she believed Britain’s participation should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition. She said in 1988, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” In fact, it was her opposition to Britain’s joining with the EC in a monetary union (along with her imposition of an unpopular tax on households) that led to her party conspiring against her to get her removed from its leadership.
It would take pages and pages to discuss all of the accomplishments and controversies associated with Margaret Thatcher, but suffice it to say that she was a strong, patriotic leader who brought Britain back from the depths to which it had fallen and contributed greatly to the ending of the Cold War. When we look at the current leadership of the West, we can only regret that someone of her courage and stature is missing from our contemporary political life.