If it is true that people’s political assumptions reflect the battles that were being waged when they were 18, then my assumptions are probably unreasonable. The first political leader to whom I paid serious attention wound up the most successful Western leader since the Second World War. I spent the summer of 1982 in Scotland and lived in England in 1984 and 1986. Musically, it was the time of transition from the Clash to the Smiths. Historically, it was the time of Britain’s victory in the Falklands war, its violent, yearlong miners’ strike and the so-called Big Bang that revolutionized its finance industry. But in anybody’s terms, it was the time of Margaret Thatcher, who died last week, aged 87.
Thatcher took power in 1979. Back then, as often happens in failing societies, there was a presumption in favor of certain destructive arguments. These were in particularly sharp relief in Britain, which was said to be haunted by the loss of empire. If Britain’s problems could be chalked up to its empire—that is, to its aspirations to be big and grand—well, then, wisdom must consist in making things small and crappy. A few years ago, Roy Hattersley, who was deputy leader of the opposition Labour party for much of Thatcher’s time, recalled this mindset with a refreshing candor. On the eve of the 1983 election, Mrs. Thatcher, needing an operation, chose a private doctor instead of the National Health Service. Asked why she’d done so, she said simply that she wanted to be treated at a time and place of her choosing. Mrs. Thatcher had just won a war and revived a dying economy, but Hattersley and his colleagues thought she’d handed them the election. They thought that Britons would go to the barricades for the principle of lousier health care and less choice.
Mrs. Thatcher was not ironic enough to understand why anyone would want to do that. She had taken over the party leadership from Edward Heath, moderate and lax in all things except guarding power, on which he was obsessive and obdurate. It required a coup, and a good deal of luck, to unseat him. Mrs. Thatcher was not the only person who wanted the job, but she was the only one with the requisite toughness.
The late, great left-leaning journalist Hugo Young recalled being impressed by “how little she cared if people liked her.” In 1981, 364 economists wrote a letter to the Times to place themselves on the record as having diagnosed the stupidity and predicted the calamity of her economic policies. By 1986, she had brought inflation, running over 20 percent at the start of her premiership, down to 2.4 percent. Elvis Costello wrote a song in the late 1980s relishing the prospect of Mrs. Thatcher’s death, saying that he would “stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” A civilized person would not say that of Stalin. (Neither would Costello, of course.) Last week, the Labour MP and former actress Glenda Jackson disputed in Parliament whether Mrs. Thatcher had even been a woman. In fact, nobody liked Mrs. Thatcher except most British people.
Mrs. Thatcher’s toughness was more than just a thick skin or hardened political ambition. The Irish Republican Army and its various imitators set a high priority on killing her. They killed Airey Neave, who had run her campaign against Heath. They killed five of her colleagues and injured dozens more when they placed a massive bomb at her 1984 party conference in Brighton. It was a publication in the Soviet Union, not some PR man, that first called her The Iron Lady.
Her triumphs were of character, not wisdom. Mrs. Thatcher was not the first politician to realize that union leaders were holding the country to ransom. The Labour white paper “In Place of Strife” dated from Harold Wilson’s premiership in the 1960s, and Heath had run for reelection in 1974 on the question of “Who governs Britain?” (He got his answer.) Her recapture of the Falklands after an Argentine invasion might have been an easy matter when Britannia ruled the waves a century before, but by 1982, Britannia most certainly did not. Thatcher commandeered cruise liners, including the Queen Elizabeth 2, as troop ships. Nor could she count on help from the United States, at least not at first, because the same Argentine generals who were threatening Britain’s overseas possessions were training the Nicaraguan contras. The Argentine war was tragic, but the tragedy lay in the generals’ unhinged decision to start it, not in Mrs. Thatcher’s decision to defend the islands’ sovereignty.
Her idea of sovereignty was an old-fashioned one. Champions of the European Union were inclined to paint it as reactionary. Thatcher “inherited a settled state of British Europeanness,” Hugo Young wrote, and Thatcher tightened relations further. But at the same time, oddly, she sought to “persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection.” The judgment is just, but incomplete. When Heath brought Britons into the common market in 1973, Western European society felt “finished.” Its system was settled, the big decisions long since taken. Virtually all the countries in the European community had a foreign policy subordinated to NATO and were following the same economic model of big welfare states, official union roles, and industrial policies. There simply wasn’t that much to use sovereignty for. But the world changed a lot in the decade and a half thereafter. At Bruges in 1988, Mrs. Thatcher said the new European system of government could not replace the one Britain had been running since 1215. She fought the advisers who tried doggedly to drag her into endorsing a common European currency. She relented in her last days in office, but her instinct proved right: Britain was chased out of the common currency by George Soros and other speculators in 1992—luckily, in light of what has happened to the members of the euro since.
Britain was not so lucky in all the matters Thatcher touched. London is Europe’s banking capital. It is not the capital of much else. These two facts may be related. There are now more people employed in Indian restaurants in Britain than in its coal, steel, and shipbuilding industries combined, according to David Goodhart’s newly published The British Dream. And this transformation happened on Mrs. Thatcher’s watch. A comparison with Ronald Reagan is apt. Mrs. Thatcher was more conservative than Reagan, in the sense that she had a better-developed sense of right and wrong. The dialectic that shaped Reagan’s worldview was that of freedom vs. unfreedom. The dialectic that shaped Thatcher’s worldview was virtue vs. laziness. Like Reagan, she generally receives credit for rescuing her country’s economy at the expense of introducing dog-eat-dog rules into its society.
The capitalism she ushered in changed Britain in unconservative ways. Just as Bill Gates’s America is more comfortable but probably less tough and less honest than Walter Reuther’s, the Britain of One Direction is more spoiled than the Britain of the Beatles. This may be evidence of shortsightedness on Thatcher’s part, but it is far more likely the latest in several millennia-worth of lessons about work, luxury, and decadence. As the historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote, “If anyone thinks that, had Thatcher fallen under a bus in 1974, Britain today would have booming coal mines, a roaring steel industry and car factories the envy of the world, then they have been reading the wrong history books.” It was not Thatcher who, 35 years ago, caused the world economy to change. But it was she who allowed her country to hold its own when change came.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.