May 13, 2004
The world has turned in the last 25 years. And that's due in
large part to the leadership of a woman who wouldn't.
Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister in May of 1979. Any review of her tenure should begin by noting just how bad things had become before she came to power. In the late 1970s, Thatcher's once-proud nation had hit rock bottom.
To pay its bills, Britain had to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund. Protracted labor disputes led to long strikes and the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978.
That year, dead bodies went unburied. Uncollected trash piled up in the streets. More strikes loomed. It was no surprise when the Labor prime minister was ousted in a vote of no confidence and replaced by the Conservative Thatcher.
Thatcher believed the answer to Britain's problems was free enterprise. "I wanted," she said, "to achieve my ambition of a capital-owning democracy. This is a state in which people own houses, shares and have a stake in society, and in which they have wealth to pass on to future generations."
Getting there required stubbornness on Lady Thatcher's part. Unlike previous governments, both Labor and Conservative, she didn't intend to just go along to get along. She truly believed government was doing too much. She launched a plan to get rid of what she called Britain's "nanny state."
That mainly meant breaking the power of trade unions and monopoly nationalized industries. Thatcher also intended to take control of the money supply, shrink the budget deficit, trim state spending, cut taxes and reduce government regulations. Quite an agenda.
But eventually, Thatcher prevailed. The government rode out a violent coal miners' strike in 1984. In the past, miners had brought down governments. Not Thatcher's. She refused to compromise and launched a new era in labor relations.
Meanwhile, she worked to extract the government from industries that could be run more efficiently by private owners. That meant selling off small businesses, such as gas stations and hotels, as well as allowing people to buy their homes instead of renting them from the government.
Of course, before public companies could be sold off, they had to be repaired. After all, unlike the government, private investors won't buy a pig in a poke. They demand accountability, and public companies such as British Telecom had none. Before privatization, it took months to get a new phone installed. It was virtually impossible to get a broken phone repaired. Customers didn't count.
But they counted after the company was sold off. At first, public complaints rose -- but there was a good reason for that. Customers knew the new, private company would actually respond to them.
Eventually, the government also sold off British Gas, British Airways and British Steel. And even though these companies cut their workforces by 30 percent or more, the introduction of free-market economics opened up other opportunities. Overall unemployment plunged -- and has stayed low. In fact, today's Labor government has largely maintained Thatcher's free-market policies, and the current unemployment rate is 4.7 percent.
The British people appreciated Thatcher's leadership and re-elected her government in 1983 and 1987. Before she stepped down in 1990, she'd proven capitalism was superior to socialism and rebuilt the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States.
Through it all, Thatcher's leadership was critical. "Turn if you like," she told her fellow Conservative party members at an especially tense point in 1980. But "the lady's not for turning." It's because she wouldn't turn that Britain has succeeded over these last 25 years.
All of us, on both sides of "the pond," owe Lady Thatcher a debt of gratitude. And we look forward to enjoying another 25 years of the prosperity her policies have done so much to create.
Ed Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.