In his book Manliness, Harvey Mansfield remarks that “The mightiest woman of our time, Margaret Thatcher, is no model for feminists, partly because of her conservative opinions, of course, but also because her renowned insensitivity makes them uneasy.” No surprise there. But does her “renowned insensitivity”—which is Mansfield’s ironic way of saying she was clear-eyed, hardheaded, and direct—also make today’s conservative politicians uneasy? Apparently so. Why else do so few take her as a model?

It’s one heck of a model. A former junior cabinet minister, and one not favored by the party establishment, Thatcher challenged the former prime minister Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1975 and defeated him. As leader of the opposition, she reshaped the party, went to the electorate in 1979 with the boldest conservative reform agenda since World War II, and handily defeated Labour prime minister James Callaghan. She served over a decade as prime minister, stopping socialism in its tracks, making inroads against the nanny state, turning the British economy around, and—side by side with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II—helping win the Cold War.

Thatcher’s tumultuous and consequential years in office have been much commented upon since her death last week. But equally instructive is her role as leader of the opposition. The British Conservative party of 1975 wasn’t unlike the Republican party today. It was electorally competitive, though losing a little more often than not. It had no real agenda other than the prudent management of British decline. Its party establishment had lost touch with its base—which, lacking spirited and forward-looking leadership, was in danger of falling prey to populist ressentiment. Meanwhile, the Labour party then, like the Democratic party today, was politically adept but intellectually bankrupt, able to hold power only by appealing to the fears and catering to the wishes of clients of an increasingly dysfunctional welfare state.

Margaret Thatcher took on Labour and the British welfare state. She took on British decline. But first she had to take on the establishment of her own party. Her victory over Heath in 1975—and her subsequent follow-through over the next four years in remaking the party—was what allowed Thatcher to become Thatcher. The leader of the opposition prefigured, and made possible, the prime minister. The governing successes of the 1980s had their roots in Thatcher’s leadership in opposition in the late 1970s.

“I can’t bear Britain in decline, I just can’t,” she said shortly before her general election victory in 1979—and she knew the complacent and decadent conservatism that had held sway in her own party for a couple of decades had been complicit in that decline. “Unless we change our ways and our direction, our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mists of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past,” she warned. But she knew her own party had gone along with those ways and that direction.

On January 19, 1976, less than a year after becoming leader of the opposition, with Britain focused on its domestic troubles, Thatcher gave a speech at Kensington Town Hall, “Britain Awake.” She began by charging the Labour government with “dismantling our defences at a moment when the strategic threat to Britain and her allies from an expansionist power is graver than at any moment since the end of the last war.” She outlined the Soviet military buildup in some detail, and explained what lay behind the recent aggressive moves by the Soviets abroad. She noted that “The men in the Soviet politburo don’t have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.” She cited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s warnings to the West and praised the “reasoned and vigorous defence of the Western concept of rights and liberties .  .  . that America’s ambassador to the U.N., Mr. Moynihan, has recently provided in his powerfully argued speeches.” She called for an increase in defense spending despite Britain’s economic troubles, which, she noted, were themselves “part of the disastrous economic legacy of socialism,” and she pledged to reverse Britain’s economic decline when the Conservatives were returned to government. “In the meantime, the Conservative party has the vital task of shaking the British public out of a long sleep. Sedatives have been prescribed by people, in and out of government, telling us that there is no external threat to Britain, that all is sweetness and light in Moscow, and that a squadron of fighter planes or a company of marine commandos is less important than some new subsidy. The Conservative party must now sound the warning.”

It was this speech that led the Soviet Army newspaper a few days later to denounce Thatcher as “The Iron Lady.” So it’s worth nothing that Thatcher was the Iron Lady in opposition before she became the Iron Lady in power. She was the Iron Lady in power because she had been the Iron Lady in opposition.

If only the Iron Lady were a model for our plastic men.

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