I cannot claim to have been an intimate of Margaret Thatcher’s. But I can claim to have known her on several levels—as a prime minister from whom I learned to put the “political” back into “political economy,” as a woman who fancied both her whisky and her sweet desserts, and as one who made it possible for me and others to withstand the thuggishness of the pickets attempting to block the introduction of new technology into Britain’s newspaper industry.
First things first—her lessons in political economy. When Prime Minister Thatcher was planning the privatization of one of the industries she moved from the woefully inefficient, overmanned public sector into private ownership, she priced the shares so that small investors would be assured of a profit in the aftermath of the offering. I complained that by underpricing the shares, she was in effect cheating the taxpayers by selling off one of their assets at bargain-basement prices. The prime minister claimed to believe in markets, yet she was ignoring the pricing signal the markets were sending—so spake this economist. To which the PM replied that I was missing the point. Privatization was not about immediate profit-maximization for taxpayers. It was about proving to British citizens that investing in private companies, becoming shareholders, is a good idea. For them there would be gains; for Thatcher, the nation would be on the road to having more shareholders than union members. This was not about money, it was about creating a citizenry with a financial interest in backing the government in its battles with the trade unions that were making Britain ungovernable.
At the time, striking coal miners were bringing manufacturing to a halt for lack of energy supplies, the print unions were driving newspapers to the brink of insolvency, and bodies were piling up as the gravediggers stopped digging. Employers appreciated her support, and I, a columnist for the Times and Sunday Times, appreciated the extent to which she was willing to use the police to get me—and more important, the editors—past howling rent-a-mobs threatening mayhem if we tried to produce a newspaper. But to her, these were not primarily employer-union battles. The issue was the rule of law—proving the state willing and able to impose the rule of law on union goons. That formulation kept the public on her side.
Then there was her whisky. To say that the grand old house in which we spent an evening between two days of seminars in the north of England was chilly would be to understate our discomfort by quite a lot. I remember the prime minister, ensconced on a couch, more than once asking me to fetch body-warming Famous Grouse, the malt whisky she favored. And I remember that when a particularly boring woman sitting next to Thatcher abandoned her seat, temporarily she thought, the prime minister physically hauled my wife, Cita, down into that seat and asked her—told her would be more accurate—under no circumstances to surrender it to its original occupant.
Then there was Thatcher’s relentless search for information. She greeted me at the door when I traveled from New York to attend a small luncheon party not with “How was your trip?” but with “Do you use M2 or M3 to measure the money supply?” Rude? Certainly not—setting the tone lest I imagine I had been invited to a mere social event. For Margaret Thatcher did not do small talk well. On one occasion she cornered me at the British embassy in Washington to ask what I was working on. “A paper on Europe,” was my vague reply, one that would have sufficed with almost any other person. The firm squeeze on my arm that I had come to know meant more than mere affection, and I was unsurprised to hear, “There is no Europe, Irwin, there are only nation-states.” A reminder of her “No, no, no” in the House of Commons responding to proposals to transfer sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels.
Long after she had been forced out of office in an intraparty palace coup engineered by MPs unhappy with her failure to retain them in the cabinet or appoint them in the first place, and others who believed her prescient refusal to adopt the euro was not in Britain’s interests, some half-dozen of us dined with Lady Thatcher at one of the better Italian restaurants that dot London. She was in good form, commenting acidly on her successors, reiterating her position on Europe—and keeping us well past our bedtime by ordering and lingering over after-dinner drinks. It was to be the last time we saw her.