Goodbye, Maggie

Margaret Thatcher’s death caught up with me in the worst of places: a speech in Argentina. What to do? Should I follow my conscience and say a few words in memory of her—and risk offending an audience sensitive to the legacy of the Falklands War—or should I keep silent? I opted for saying a couple of words, asking them not to take offense and expressing respect for their feelings. Some disapproving noises came back from the audience. After I finished speaking, I faced some aggressive reproaches.

In death, as in life, Thatcher is a polarizing figure. There are classical liberals who object to her excessive conservatism and conservatives who judge her to have been too libertarian; the left hates everything about her and Argentines consider her a war criminal. I spent a few years in London during her time in office. There are some things everyone, left or right, should value.

First, she transformed the British right, which was an oligarchic club, into a association in which merit rather than origin, and effort rather than lineage, became the dominant features. When she took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, being a grocer’s daughter from Grantham was a stigma among Tories; self-made success and social mobility were anathema to them. By 1990, those were emblems of a new Tory Party.

Thatcher brought back ideas into politics. Neither the left, which had been dominant since the end of WWII and accelerated Britain’s decadence, nor the right, which had accepted the fundamentals of a socioeconomic model imposed by the left, believed in ideas anymore. We can debate whether she went as far as she could in applying hers, but there is no debating her love of ideas.  The ones she absorbed at the Institute of Economic Affairs and the ones she learned reading everything from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek shaped her discourse and many, many of her actions.

Because her mission was not to do away with the state, she did not do so. In some areas, such as defense, she enlarged it. But she launched a process that devolved the responsibility for wealth creation and the pursuit of happiness from the state to civil society. In so doing, she transformed the right and the left. She instilled idealism and a reformist zeal into the political right; she helped modernize part of the left. Although Tony Blair’s Labor Party made government somewhat bigger, on the whole he maintained her legacy and reaped the benefits. This fostered the rebirth of the left under the banner of the “third way”, which impacted Europe, the United States (under Bill Clinton) and Latin America (with Brazil’s Lula da Silva).

Contributing to the implosion of Soviet communism, something that is often attributed to her, was no small feat. It required going up against vested interests and widespread perceptions in a democratic Europe that had lost all hope of change on the other side of the Iron Curtain. She was accused of being blinded by ideology; but when she understood that Mikhail Gorbachev was seriously interested in reform, she declared that the West could “do business with him” (and caused whispers among the American right). Thatcher was not an ideological animal, but a political animal with ideas. Both the right and the left owe much to what she did, in peaceful combat, to tear down the Berlin Wall. The right defeated an enemy, of course, but the moderate left shook off a dead weight.

Thatcher mistrusted European integration. Many of us thought she did so primarily for nationalistic reasons (and later a discomfort with a unified Germany) rather than because she feared the bureaucratic aspects. Time has shown she was right about some of what she said. The European construct has many flaws; the crisis of 2007/8 brought them into the open.

She was a rare politician. It will be decades before Europe produces anything like her. Rest in peace, Maggie.

  • Catalyst