Margaret Thatcher, one of the most remarkable leaders of the 20th century, died in London on Monday at the age of 87. The only woman ever to serve as prime minister of her country, and the longest-serving prime minister in the past 100 years, she helped put the “great” back in Great Britain. She did it by an unwavering devotion to conservative principles and her country’s interests. Would that we had some leaders like her today.
Here’s how historian Paul Johnson began his tribute to Lady Thatcher in a column in The Wall Street Journal: “Margaret Thatcher had more impact on the world than any woman ruler since Catherine the Great of Russia. Not only did she turn around–decisively–the British economy in the 1980s, she also saw her methods copied in more than 50 countries. ‘Thatcherism’ was the most popular and successful way of running a country in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st.”
Needless to say, the left hated Thatcher. And they still do. When her death was announced, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and others of their ilk held celebrations throughout the United Kingdom. One of the more popular refrains at their demonstrations was singing “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”
Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron, expressed the opposite point of view. “She saved our country and I believe she will go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister,” he declared.
I have no doubt that Thatcher would have been as proud of the response by her enemies today as she was nearly four decades ago, when a Soviet newspaper first referred to her as the “Iron Lady” because of her outspoken opposition to Marxism, socialism and communism.
When she was elected to the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, Thatcher promised a new and tougher approach to the major political issues of the day.
“I am not a consensus politician,” she warned. “I’m a conviction politician.”
For the next four years, Thatcher served as leader of the opposition to the ruling Labour Party. During that time, economic conditions in the country steadily worsened, while the unions grew more powerful and demanding. Conditions became so bad that in the United Kingdom, late 1978 became known as the Winter of Discontent.
In the national elections that followed in May 1979, the Conservative Party won a 43-seat majority in the British Parliament. The Labour Party was ousted, and Thatcher became prime minister.
She came into office at a time when Britain, like the United States, had a double-digit inflation rate, a top income tax rate of 83 percent on earned income and an unbelievable 98 percent tax rate on “unearned” income.
Slowly but steadily, Thatcher began dismantling the power of the state. She was undeterred by protests, demonstrations and even some riots that turned deadly. As she said at the time, “The lady’s not for turning.”
Her resolve was quickly tested by many of Britain’s labor unions, which for years had used crippling strikes to assert their power. They had made Britain the most strike-ridden country in Europe. Prior to Thatcher, few politicians in Britain dared challenge them.
The most militant was the miner’s union, which launched a nationwide strike in 1984. Thatcher refused to bow to their demands and increasingly brought public sentiment to her side. Although it took a year, the stranglehold that British labor unions had enjoyed for years was finally broken.
When she first became prime minister, state-owned industries represented nearly one-third of Britain’s economy and workforce. She launched a vigorous program of privatization, selling shares of the coal, steel, railways and utilities that the government owned. By the time she left office 11 years later, the state’s ownership of major industries had declined dramatically. For the first time ever, the newly privatized businesses began paying taxes, rather than merely consuming them.
Thatcher’s biggest foreign policy test came in 1982, when the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina ordered its forces to seize the Falkland Islands. Many in the West, including some in her own party, didn’t think the tiny islands in the South Atlantic were worth fighting for. Thatcher disagreed and dispatched to the area a task force that ultimately totaled 127 ships, dozens of planes and several thousand troops.
After several weeks of fighting, the Argentine forces on the islands surrendered. The Falklands were brought back under British control, much to the delight of the 1,800 English-speaking residents there. The victory made Thatcher more popular than ever back home. “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat,” she declared. The following year, the Conservative Party won re-election by a much bigger majority than it had in 1979.
Years later, she demonstrated the same fortitude when she encouraged George H.W. Bush not to permit Saddam Hussein to get away with his invasion of Kuwait. “This is no time to go wobbly,” she told the President.
Thatcher found a kindred spirit in Ronald Reagan, who was elected to this Nation’s highest office 18 months after Thatcher became prime minister in the U.K. They rekindled the “special relationship” between the two countries. Together, they were instrumental in launching the policies that led to the collapse of communism and the Soviet empire. Free people everywhere — but especially in countries behind what was once called the Iron Curtain — owe them an immense debt of gratitude.
Thatcher was finally forced from office in 1990, not because of victories by the opposition, but because she no longer had the support of a majority of Conservative politicians. She left No. 10 Downing Street in November 1990. Having been made a baroness by Queen Elizabeth, Thatcher took a seat in Britain’s upper branch, the House of Lords.
She made one of her last public appearances in 2007, when she returned to the House of Commons to unveil a bronze statue of herself. “I might have preferred iron,” she said at the time, “but bronze will do.”
Yes, in a world that desperately needs leadership that is proudly patriotic and unyielding in its commitment to principle, the Iron Lady’s example will certainly do.
Let’s hope that many of our conservative and libertarian politicians are inspired by her example and echo her resolve.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.