George Will

Margaret Thatcher: The woman who gave Britain a pride transplant

Updated: 2013-04-10T23:24:34Z

By George Will

The Washington Post

She had the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe. So said Francois Mitterrand, the last serious socialist to lead a major European nation, speaking of Margaret Thatcher, who helped bury socialism as a doctrine of governance.

Her decisiveness made her the most formidable woman in 20th-century politics, and England's most formidable woman since its greatest sovereign, Elizabeth I. The Argentine junta learned of her decisiveness when it seized the Falklands. The British, too, learned. A Tory MP said, “She cannot see an institution without hitting it with her handbag.”

She aimed to be the moral equivalent of military trauma, shaking her nation into vigor through rigor. As stable societies mature, they resemble long-simmering stews — viscous and lumpy with organizations resistant to change and hence inimical to dynamism.

Her program was sound money, laissez faire, social fluidity and upward mobility through self-reliance and other “vigorous virtues.” She is the only prime minister whose name came to denote a doctrine — Thatcherism.

When she left office in 1990, the trade unions had been tamed by democratizing them and the political argument was about how to achieve economic growth rather than redistribute wealth.

And the Labour Party, shellacked three times, was ready for a post-socialist leader. Tony Blair was part of Thatcher's legacy.

Time was, Labour considered itself the party of ideas and Tories preferred balancing interests to implementing political philosophy. But by the 1970s, Labour was a creature of a single interest group, the unions, and the Tories, who made Thatcher their leader in 1975, were becoming, as America's Republicans were becoming, a party of ideas.

Britain has periodically been a laboratory for economic ideas — those of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, the socialism of postwar Labour. Before the ascendancy of Thatcher — a disciple of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — Tories tried to immunize Britain against socialism by administering prophylactic doses of the disease.

But by 1979, Britain's fundamental political arrangements were at issue: Such was the extortionate power of the unions to paralyze the nation, the writ of Parliament often seemed not to run beyond a few acres along the Thames.

In 1979, she won the most lopsided election since 1945, when there had not been an election for 10 years. In 1983, she became the first Tory since 1924 to win two consecutive elections. In 1987, she won a third. The most consequential peacetime prime minister since Disraeli, by 1990 she had become the first prime minister to govern through an entire decade since the Earl of Liverpool from 1812 to 1827.

In Britain and America in the 1960s and 1970s, government's hubris expanded as its competence shrank. Like her soul mate, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher practiced the politics of psychotherapy, giving her nation a pride transplant.

Reagan was responding to 17 lacerating years — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis. She was sick and tired of three decades of Britain being described as the Ottoman Empire once was, as “the sick man of Europe.” She set about enlarging and energizing the middle class, the great engine of social change in every modern society.

Before Thatcher, Britain's economic problems often were ascribed to national character, and hence were thought immune to remediation. Thatcher thought national character was part of the problem, but that national character is malleable, given bracing economic medicine.

She left the British this ongoing challenge: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level.” As long as her brave heart beat, she knew there are no final victories.

To reach George Will, send email to georgewill@washpost.com.

Deal Saver Subscribe today!

Comments

The Kansas City Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Kansas City Star uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here