Thirty years ago, Britain embarked upon a conservative
revolution that not only transformed the country but left an
indelible and unmistakable impact on the rest of the world. Only
two British Prime Ministers--Winston Churchill and Margaret
Thatcher--have by force of personality and power of example done
anything like this.
In The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill wrote of his
initial thoughts after his election as Prime Minister in May
As I went to bed at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound
sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions
over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny and
that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and
for this trial.
While it is not recorded whether Mrs. Thatcher felt the same way
in the early hours of May 4, 1979, she very well may have.
Britain Before Thatcher: The Sick Man
Britain, when Margaret Thatcher took office, was, as the phrase
had it, the "sick man of Europe" and the sickness, also known as
the British disease, looked incurable. Indeed, the <_consensus2c_ which="" the="" most="" of="">Conservative Party (like the rest of the political
class) shared, was that cure was not the issue. Rather, and to
change to another contemporary expression, what was required of any
British government was the "orderly management of decline."
The last period of the Labour government had, of course, been
disorderly. Militant trade unionists that winter brought the
country to a halt, while the dead lay unburied and the rubbish
piled up in Trafalgar Square. Hardly anyone believed that a fresh
leader could reverse decline, recreate the conditions for
prosperity, rebuild capitalism, and restore the country's
international standing. So the question most frequently asked--not
least within the cynical, defeatist ranks of the Conservative
Party, which Mrs. Thatcher had just dragged to electoral
success--was how long before this "tiresome" woman and her
ideological cronies could be ditched.
At times it was a close-run thing. She needed luck, and in this
case fortune did favor the brave. So on through strikes, a war,
recession, attempted assassination, simmering dissension, and
outright political revolts, she ploughed until the job (or most of
it, at least) was done.
The Thatcher Revolution
The pace and scale of this revolution justifies the description,
even though the chief revolutionary herself was someone of very
traditional instincts who always considered that she was restoring
what had been lost, not imposing a utopian plan. In any case, by
the time Mrs. Thatcher left office, eleven and a half years on from
setting foot in Downing Street, Britain had changed profoundly and
overwhelmingly. And for the better. Just to list the achievements
is, yet again, to feel astonished at them.
A completely new approach to the management of the economy had
been applied--one that, until the recent crash, had not been
seriously challenged. All the old assumptions were reversed.
Inflation was defeated without a prices and incomes policy. The
currency was strong without resort to exchange controls, which were
abolished for the first time since the Second World War. Days lost
in strikes plummeted and productivity soared without concessions to
the trade unions, which were tamed and reformed. Private enterprise
was brought in to run what had always been considered "public"
utilities. Cutting-edge industries and skills-based services took
the place of slimmed down or euthanized industrial dinosaurs.
Public spending was subjected to an iron grip, public borrowing
turned around to begin repaying debt, and tax rates--once at
Scandinavian levels--were brought down to attract and motivate, not
penalize and drive out, talent. Real, lasting jobs, as opposed to
state subsidised make-work, were providing higher incomes. Working
class families, trapped for successive generations in rented social
housing, now bought their homes and started building up
capital--even acquiring shares.
The Restoration of Britain as a World Power
And when British people went abroad--as so many more were doing
for the first time in their lives--they found, to their delight,
that Britain itself was taken seriously again. Why? Because eight
thousand miles away, in the treacherous and implacable South
Atlantic, Britain had fought what seemed a Quixotic conflict and
discovered, perhaps with surprise, that victory is worth striving
for and national glory is good for the soul. And all the while
there was a larger, nobler purpose still: the finally triumphant
campaign against global Communism, which had murdered, stunted, and
impoverished millions with impunity. The friendship between Britain
and America was turned by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan into
a mighty bulwark against the Evil Empire, which by 1990 was already
The Right Leader at a Time of Crisis
Of course, like President Reagan, Margaret Thatcher had her
failures and her disappointments. But much of the later criticism
fails to hit the mark. It is true that British society now gives
conservatives, among others, cause for concern with its crime,
disorder, dysfunctional families, and dependency. But it is much
less obviously true that there is anything that Mrs. Thatcher's
economic reforms did to make it so--cultural, religious and moral
trends are stronger than even the strongest politicians.
Mrs. Thatcher left office deeply uneasy about Britain's unsorted
entanglements with the fledgling super-state that is the European
Union. But the time was not yet politically right for fundamental
reshaping, or at least that is what her cabinet colleagues decided.
A more substantial criticism is that not much was done to reform
the country's hopelessly inefficient health service and welfare
system. But not even someone of Margaret Thatcher's tireless
constitution can do everything, and democratic electorates have a
limited appetite for restless change: They need a crisis, or even
crises, to bring out their best.
Mrs. Thatcher was, indeed, always and pre-eminently the woman
for crises. She did not seek them, but at a certain level, like all
natural leaders, she relished them, and she towered over others
during them. Now, with Britain mired in another economic crisis--in
which much criticism has been leveled against the free enterprise
capitalism Mrs. Thatcher extolled--many, it seems, would like her
back, as she was in her heyday, to boss and bully them into
An opinion poll for Prospect magazine rated Mrs.
Thatcher better equipped to steer Britain through the economic
maelstrom than Gordon Brown (47 percent to 34 percent) and better
by a still wider margin than David Cameron (49 percent to 24
percent). In that light, it is encouraging that
a recent survey by the Times of Conservative parliamentary
candidates found that the likely new intake are "to a large extent
followers of Margaret Thatcher and her revolution."
The Thatcher Legacy Must Be Defended
That continuing inspiration is, indeed, a crucially important
element of the Thatcher legacy. In Britain, much of what she did is
being, or has already been, reversed by the Labour government's
financial profligacy, class-hate-driven tax policy, and sweeping
centralization. The eventual outcome will depend on a new
generation of conservatives able and willing to fight the same
battles she did. At least they have something she (of necessity)
lacked, because--to adapt the words of her eulogy to Ronald
Reagan--they have her example.
Harris, D.Phil., is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Margaret
Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.