The death of Margaret Thatcher throws into bold relief an earlier era when conservative leaders were charting a new course, propelled by economic stagnation and dogmatic left-wing politics.
She is paired in history with Ronald Reagan, the president who came to power two years after Thatcher became the first and only woman prime minister in British history. Both leaders lived through harsh recessions brought on to tame runaway inflation. Both leaders transformed conservatism from a stodgy defense of the status quo into a force for reform, winning new converts when their nations’ economies rebounded.
Thatcher did not convey the sunny, buoyant optimism that Reagan did. She became known as the “Iron Lady” because she was an uncompromising, forceful leader who knew where she wanted to go and how she wanted to get there. Her steely qualities were all the more important in Britain, whose challenges were far more daunting than the challenges Reagan faced.
British politics had been dominated by the Labour Party, which pursued a socialist program that nationalized industry and created a generous welfare state. But by the late 1970s, Britain’s economic problems had grown dire. About half of the average worker’s income went to taxes, and the wages of a third of workers were set by the government because they worked for government-owned industries.
Thatcher’s war with the coal miners’ union and her decision to sell off government-owned industries, including coal mines, produced fierce labor wars and high unemployment. But as deficits, taxes, and inflation mounted, the government could no longer maintain the policies of the past.
Thatcher drew harsh criticism for coldly disregarding the interests of working men and women while serving the interests of business. Eventually, however, British business revived, and Britain became a European economic power.
Thatcher was of her time in standing up to the communist bloc. She and Reagan were soulmates on the topic of freedom. Thatcher enhanced her popularity in Britain by waging war against Argentina in order to take back the Falkland Islands, which the Argentine military junta had seized.
Thatcher’s death underscores the degree to which her and Reagan’s conservative revolution was the reform movement of its time. Their targets were regulation that impeded business and excessive government spending, which soaked up their nations’ wealth. They inspired new generations of conservative leaders who wanted to carry their policies forward.
In that light, it’s possible to see that the conservative movements in both countries are now the new status quo, dogged by their own failures. Free market, anti-regulatory policies have produced a buccaneering form of capitalism that has crippled the economies of both nations and led to a historically wide gap between rich and poor.
These are the logical extension of policies pioneered by Thatcher and Reagan, just as the inefficient welfare states of the 1970s were a logical extension of the pioneering reforms of an earlier era. Reform now is coming from the left, which is looking to assert control over the financial sector and to force business once again to behave as good citizens.
It is interesting to note a recent New York Times column finding that among young voters it is the millennials, those born after 1980, who are most receptive to change in a liberal direction. Previous cohorts of young people were still under the conservative sway of the Reagan-Thatcher era.
Thatcher fashioned herself as a resolute leader — not a “consensus” politician, but a “conviction” politician. Many millions admired her for her strength, and British voters elected her three times. In the history of her time she stands in stark outline, though her death reminds us of the distance in the past to which her time has receded. Those battles are long over. We are engaged in new battles to wrestle policy from the iron grip of the Iron Lady.
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