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Iron Without Irony

The triumph of toughness

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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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.

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