Margaret Thatcher looked back on the Conservative Party victory in 1979, sweeping her into the prime minister’s office, and explained that she arrived with “one deliberate intent”: “To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation.” By that measure, she delivered a success story during her tenure of 11 years. A country in retreat, its economy stagnant, battered by high inflation and excessive government intervention, gained new shape, energy and momentum.
The change did not come easily. “Thatcherism” brought sharp spending cuts, an end to subsidies for industries and a tight grip on the money supply. A global recession added to the misery, businesses closing, unemployment soaring, protesters taking to the streets. Conservative colleagues advised a partial retreat. Thatcher held firm, famously noting, in that arch and certain way: “Turn if you like. The lady’s not for turning.”
You do not have to agree with every step that Thatcher took, or the extent to which she pushed, to admire in the wake of her death at age 87 on Monday her steadfastness and her understanding that the rigid thinking of unions and nationalizing industries had been ruinous. In that way, she found an ally in Ronald Reagan, fanning the ideas of entrepreneurial agility, a private sector less burdened by its public counterpart.
A measure of her influence came in the makeover of the Labor Party. Again, like Reagan, she all but required the opposition to adapt, Labor (and the Democratic Party here) actually benefiting as it moved toward the middle.
The president and the prime minister celebrated economic freedom and individual liberty, and rarely so emphatically as when they aimed their words at the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet empire was due to developments there more than anything else. Yet Thatcher and Reagan played a part. In addition, Thatcher used the platform to return Britain to a more influential international role. It mattered when she said: “I like Mr. [Mikhail] Gorbachev. We can do business together.”
“I am not a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician,” Thatcher would say. Britain needed a leader who would press in a new direction, her determination apparent in taking the fight to Argentina over the Falklands, or Malvinas, Islands. Yet just as her predecessors became vulnerable through misjudgments, so did she.
By her third term, she had lost patience with contrary views within her camp, insisting on her way as she sought to remake education and health care, or expressed disdain for the necessary and inevitable, greater integration with Europe. She did not adapt, Conservatives unceremoniously ousting the first woman to serve a prime minister. Then again, Margaret Thatcher already had changed Britain, her “one deliberate intent.”