Few political figures in Britain have provoked such strong reactions –both positive and negative– as former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There are times when confrontation in a country’s political process is required to generate needed change, whereas in other occasions compromise is the more convenient path. The former certainly describes the times in which Margaret Thatcher took the reins of power as the first female Prime Minister of a major Western democracy –that sole fact would have granted her a special place in the history books. But that historic feature, which opened the doors to the rise of women in global politics, would be all but a single colourful detail in what was to become one of the most revolutionary premierships in British history –certainly the most revolutionary of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Margaret Thatcher’s beliefs
After an initially unsuccessful attempt at gaining a seat in Parliament, the now married Margaret Hilda Thatcher finally became a Conservative MP for Finchley in 1959. As an MP, Mrs Thatcher was initially cautious not to sound too radical in the era of “consensus,” when both the Conservative and the Labour parties did not dispute the central tenets of the ever-increasing welfare state. But more privately, Mrs Thatcher –under the influence of her friend, mentor and fellow MP Keith Joseph– was becoming a follower of an Austrian economist and philosopher who was laying the foundations for the resurgence of classical liberalism or, what some later named, neo-liberalism: Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek’s works focused on the dangers of central planning of economic activity in an ever-expanding state which, if left unchecked, would ultimately erode all individual freedoms and lead to a totalitarian society.
It was this combination of her life experience, the conservative values of hard work and self-reliance instilled by her father and her discovery of the radical liberalism of Hayek which formed the core of Margaret Thatcher’s radical –and ironically very un-conservative– individualist vision. Her future political fights and policies would be based on that vision.
The Era of Discontent
One cannot analyse historical events and figures without placing them within a context, and no one can deny that the context of the Britain of the 1970s was anything but congenial. Rampant inflation and increasing unemployment; industrial unrest promoted by out-of-control, over-mighty trade unions who were destabilising governments of Left and Right alike; price controls and over-regulation of economic activity which was making Britain one of the least competitive countries in Europe; a nationalised economy mired in stagnation. This was the state of the United Kingdom when Margaret Thatcher cruised to victory in 1979.
After taking office, Mrs Thatcher quickly identified her two most important enemies: high inflation and belligerent trade unions. She began to act on the former as soon as she took office, putting in practice Milton Friedman’s theory of monetarism, which stressed the need to control the money supply to fight inflation –an idea that turned the then economic consensus upside down. It was a risky move and a radical idea at the time, but previous governments had failed at controlling inflation by following the Keynesian consensus of the time. Thatcher’s radicalism was beginning to show. Even when the initial effect was a deeper recession, Mrs Thatcher didn’t waver and pushed on with this economic experiment. By 1983, inflation had decreased from more than 20% in 1980 to less than 5% in 1983. GDP, which had decreased by 2% in 1980, was growing by 4% in 1983 and would continue to experience a boom (by 1988 the economy was growing by almost 6%).
The second enemy would be tackled later on, once Mrs Thatcher made sure she had the right conditions –both in popularity at the polls as well as in the state of the economy– to win the battle.
The Thatcher Revolution
Militant trade unions had toppled the government of Edward Heath (the Conservative leader who would later be defeated by Mrs Thatcher in the leadership contest of 1975) and undermined the Labour government of James Callahan. Union bosses even used to refuse to hold ballots among their members and declared strikes without their consent. This undemocratic paralysis of the political system provoked by unelected union leaders had to be tackled if there was to be a solution to the plague of Britain’s economic stagnation. After securing her re-election in the landslide of 1983 and with an improved economic scenario, Mrs Thatcher was ready to face this battle. When the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill, declared a strike in 1984 –even when no ballot had taken place and many union members had voiced their opposition to it–, the central battle against the excessive power of the unions began. The battle was divisive and harsh, but someone needed to curb the unlimited power of union leaders. Mrs Thatcher had the courage and determination that her predecessors lacked, and she did not flinch until Scargill conceded defeat in 1985. Union power had been defeated and would never be the same in the years to come.
After being victorious against her two main enemies –inflation and unions–, Mrs Thatcher pressed ahead with her revolution. Her vision of radical individualism was extended to most areas of economic life. That vision became to be known as “popular capitalism.” For the first time in decades, a British Prime Minister was determined to “roll back the frontiers of the state.” A series of policies put this vision into practice: the “right-to-buy” scheme which allowed millions of council house tenants the opportunity to become home owners for the first time, materialising Mrs Thatcher’s vision of a property-owning democracy in which property was an essential right; the lowering of what were almost confiscatory tax rates to spur private investment (in 1979, the top income tax rate was 83%); the elimination of state subsidies to non-competitive industries; and the promotion of free trade within Europe and around the world.
But what perhaps became the most revolutionary and quintessential policy of the Thatcher revolution –so revolutionary that put in vogue a neologism– was the selling of state assets and nationalised companies, which came to be known as privatisation. State monopolies such as oil, steel, water, electricity, telephones, airways and gas were all sold to the private sector. The percentage of the British population owning shares went from 7% in 1979 to 25% in 1990 –another example of “popular capitalism” into action. Mrs Thatcher’s drive for privatisation began a global move towards a freer, more open economy and the end of the era of an expanding state.
The Iron Lady
While Margaret Thatcher’s economic legacy at home and its consequences abroad are enormous, almost like a paradigm shift, her contribution to the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Communist totalitarianism is equally gigantic. She was a fervent anti-Communist, but she was also a pragmatic, rational negotiator. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader, she was able to recognise that he represented a radical break from previous Soviet leaders. Mr Gorbachev was open to dialogue with the West and Mrs Thatcher took that opportunity to start the process that ultimately led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Communist experiment. She was a formidable mediator between Mr Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. She was able to put her fervent anti-Communism aside –without abandoning her distaste for Communism– and promote dialogue with the ideological enemy.
Mrs Thatcher’s firm determination was proved early on her premiership, when in 1982 Argentina’s military dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands –also known as Malvinas in Argentina– located in the South Atlantic near the Argentine coast and under British rule since 1833. Argentina had claimed sovereignty over the islands for many years and the country’s military junta, under increasing pressure from a population tired of the regime, bet on an invasion and capture of the islands as a way to remain in power. The junta thought highly unlikely that the British would fight for two tiny islands miles away from home and it was confident that the United States would not intervene in the conflict. But to the junta’s surprise, the British government under Mrs Thatcher decided to recapture the islands. Mrs Thatcher resisted pressure from the White House to avoid a conflict, claiming that the islands belonged to Britain and their inhabitants had to be defended. Despite pessimist prospects, the islands were recaptured and the Argentine dictatorship defeated. The result of the Falklands War transformed Mrs Thatcher’s image at home and had positive consequences for the Argentines as well: by 1983, democracy had returned to Argentina after eight dark years of authoritarian rule. Although few Argentines now recognise it, Margaret Thatcher is in part responsible for their liberation from the most brutal dictatorship the country has ever experienced, along with the 649 Argentines and 258 Britons who died in the conflict.
A Complex Figure
It is no surprise by now that Margaret Thatcher was a complex figure. While many on both Right and Left would argue that she was the embodiment of social conservatism, her actual positions on many issues are much more complex than that. Yes, she had a conservative predisposition on many ways –although we have already talked of her ironically radical break from the status quo–, but she also departed from traditionalism in many occasions. Perhaps the two most prominent examples of this complexity are her support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1966, when she was one of the few Tories who voted for Labour’s Leo Abse’s bill along with her mentor and fellow Tory MP Keith Joseph, and her support for Liberal MP David Steel’s bill to legalise abortion in the same year. She would later explain these two votes in her 1995 memoirs titled “The Path to Power,” by saying that these reforms had to do with “cruel or unfair” provisions that required those two laws and that on those two issues she had been “strongly influenced by my own experience of other people’s suffering.”
Many gay rights campaigners have accused Mrs Thatcher of being a homophobe because of her government’s introduction of the so-called Section 28, a provision on the Local Government Act of 1988 which prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, however, it did not create a criminal offence and thus no prosecution was ever brought under this provision. While there’s no doubt that this clause was illiberal and silly, there is no mention of it on Mrs Thatcher’s memoirs which indicates a lack of interest in the matter altogether. While it is true that she believed in the “traditional” (aka heterosexual) family, this was most likely a generational trait rather than a dislike of gay people. As it has been indicated by many people on her inner circle, there were no indications of prejudice on her attitudes towards openly gay colleagues. On the contrary, she appointed gay ministers and spent many of her last days in the company of her close friend and openly gay Conservative MP Conor Burns, who used to visit Mrs Thatcher almost every Sunday until her death this week. This is hardly the attitude of an ardent homophobe.
Moreover, Mrs Thatcher’s government was the first in the world to launch a national awareness campaign to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS and promote safe sex. This campaign was a model for other countries who later adopted similar strategies. So even when the traditionalist Right wants to portray Mrs Thatcher as the embodiment of “traditional moral values” and social conservatism, and the Left pretends to characterise her as an ardent homophobe, the truth is she was none of these. Mrs Thatcher’s biggest passion was her belief that all our freedoms depended on individual economic freedom and that was her main focus during her long political career.
One of the most intriguing facts about Mrs Thatcher’s transformational economic policies –a fact that those on the Left of the political spectrum are hesitant to recognise– is that the liberalisation of the economy they produced led to a liberalisation of society’s moral conventions. Whether she wanted it or not, her liberal economic revolution led to a more liberal society.
But there are more areas in which both Right and Left seem to portray a picture of Mrs Thatcher that is not quite accurate. She has been labelled an “anti-European,” yet Mrs Thatcher campaigned for Britain’s entrance to the European Community. She was a strong advocate of the European Single Market and viewed it not only as a way to promote free trade and economic freedom, but also as a tool against Communism. Mrs Thatcher became wary of the European Community when the idea of a closer political union began to arise. The same convictions that made her a fierce enemy of socialism at home led her to believe that Europe was heading towards something far beyond economic cooperation: a federal European super-state. As she would later say in her famous Bruges Speech, “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” In summary, she was not anti-European, but anti-European federalism, which are two different things.
There is another issue which perfectly exemplifies Mrs Thatcher’s complexity and that may take many by surprise. It was Margaret Thatcher the first world leader to warn of the dangers of climate change at the end of the 1980s, when the topic was not even on the global agenda. Mrs Thatcher believed that climate change posed a danger to future generations and action was needed to reduce carbon emissions and avoid tragic consequences in the future. She also pushed for the global phase-out of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). So there was much more to Margaret Thatcher than free markets and individualism.
The Dark Spots
Like any leader before and after her, Margaret Thatcher had many flaws and she made plenty of mistakes, some of them hard to swallow from a liberal perspective. She initially opposed the re-unification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She feared the influence that a reunited and mighty Germany would have on Europe. But she was not alone in her fears; the socialist French President Francois Mitterrand shared her feelings. History has showed that her fears of a reunited Germany were proven wrong –although no one can deny that her experience as a young girl living in a Britain under attack from Nazi Germany had something to do with these fears.
Mrs Thatcher’s refusal to adopt economic sanctions against South Africa in order to put pressure on the government to end with the tragedy of Apartheid is also questionable. Although it is not true that she supported Apartheid as many of her critics on the Left argued at the time –she saw it as morally unacceptable–, her opposition to sanctions was probably the wrong call. Mrs Thatcher believed that by thwarting commerce with the African country, no reform was going to take place, since only a free economy would create the conditions for the abolition of Apartheid. Even though she once called Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a “terrorist organisation,” she later put pressure on South Africa’s government to release Mr Mandela from prison and lift the ban on the ANC. Mrs Thatcher would later meet with Mr Mandela and write in her memoirs that “South Africa was lucky to have a man of Mr Mandela’s stature at such a time.” Whether her refusal to support sanctions delayed –as her critics claim– or accelerated the abolition of Apartheid –as she believed– belongs to history’s judgement.
But perhaps the most troubling aspect about Mrs Thatcher was her close relationship with Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet had helped Britain during the Falklands War providing valuable intelligence and Thatcher never forgot that. Even when we can understand the feeling of gratitude toward a government that collaborated in such a difficult moment, her embrace of Pinochet’s figure is hard to defend. This will always be the darkest spot in Mrs Thatcher’s political life.
A Legacy That Will Live On
Love her or hate her, no one can deny the far-reaching influence Margaret Thatcher had at home and abroad. Rather than being just another conservative leader, she was a radical, revolutionary and transformational figure. She was a true pioneer: The first woman to lead a major Western democracy; the first leader to radically embrace the return to free-market, liberal capitalism; the first to champion large-scale privatisation; the first to see that the West ‘could do business’ with Gorbachev and bury Communism through strength, but also through dialogue. Was she a small-c conservative then? In some ways, yes, she was a conservative. But the changes she generated in Britain and around the world are anything but conservative. When giving a lecture in honour of Keith Joseph, her philosophical mentor and fellow MP, she said: “The kind of Conservatism which Keith Joseph and I favoured would be best described as 'liberal,' in the old-fashioned sense. And I mean the liberalism of Mr Gladstone.” Whereas she departed from liberalism many times, the core of her philosophy –her passionate belief in the freedom of the individual over the power of the state– could not have been any more liberal. It is that core the one which inspired most of the revolutionary policies that came to be known as “Thatcherism.” The sole fact that her name gave birth to a new “-ism” speaks of Mrs Thatcher’s massive influence on the global stage.
There is no denying that the medicine she prescribed to Britain’s economic decadence of the 1970s was sometimes painful and harsh, but was there really any alternative? Would Britain have emerged from its long-term stagnation if not for Mrs Thatcher’s bold and radical policies? Few now question her decision to liberalise the economy and create a more competitive, entrepreneurial environment. History has proven that her recipe, while harsh, was the right call. Perhaps the most ironic fact of Thatcherism is that it helped the opposition even more than Mrs Thatcher’s own party. While the necessary “dirty” work to get the economy moving was done during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, most of the benefits that Thatcherism generated in the long term –economic growth, low inflation, low unemployment– were enjoyed by Tony Blair’s New Labour. But someone had to do the hard work, and it was the self-reliant lady from Grantham who did it. Someone needed to say “there’s no turning back.”
After eleven and a half years of a remarkable premiership, the world saw a renewed Britain in a transformed world. Many will remember Mrs Thatcher for her divisiveness and confrontational style, but most will remember her courage and determination to do what no one had the courage to do but was needed at the time. Many Britons will always be grateful to her for returning a once lost sense of optimism about their country’s future. Millions of Eastern Europeans will always be grateful to her for fighting to achieve the liberation of half of Europe from the chains of Communist totalitarianism. Many will only see her flaws and mistakes, but many more will always remember her as a freedom fighter. There is no question which side we are on.
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