Thatcher's Legacy Will Outlive Us All


Thatcher's Legacy Will Outlive Us All

Apr 9th, 2013 3 min read
Luke Coffey

Director, Douglas & Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy

Luke Coffey oversees research on nations stretching from South America to the Middle East.

Margaret Thatcher’s career made one thing clear: she loved America and what it stands for. Her commitment to the principles embraced by the founding fathers made her a transformative prime minister for Britain and an inspirational leader for freedom-loving peoples throughout the world.

Before Thatcher came to power in 1979, Britain was widely dismissed as the “sick man of Europe.”  The British economy was in dire straits. Key industries were state-owned and increasingly unprofitable. Militant labor unions wielded dangerous amounts of influence. For far too many Britons, hard work simply did not pay off.

Thatcher knew that this had to change. More importantly, she knew that she was the one who could change it.

From the very beginning of her premiership, she pursued policies of economic growth, individual liberty and personal empowerment. In many ways, her economic policies became a template for Ronald Reagan’s. By the time she left office in 1990, people at all levels of income were better off than they were in 1979.

How did she do it?  She limited the role of government in everyday life by privatizing state-owned enterprises such as the telecommunications sector and key utilities like electric and gas. She broke the back of the powerful labor unions too. In May 1979, 864,000 working days were lost to union strikes; by the time she left office in November 1990, this figure was down to only 117,000. She sent the message to the British public that hard work would pay off and that success would not be penalized. The tax rate on the top earners in the U.K. was slashed from an astonishing 83 percent in 1979 to 40 percent by 1988.

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Meritocracy was at the core of what Thatcher believed. She herself came from humble beginnings, the daughter of green grocers from the British equivalent of “small town USA,” she overcame numerous social obstacles to become Britain’s first and only female prime minister. She believed in social mobility and strived to infuse this belief in every one of her economic policies.

One of the earliest examples of her passion for promoting upward mobility was the Housing Act of 1980, which allowed those living in subsidized government housing to purchase their homes from the government. As a result, home ownership in the U.K. skyrocketed, and it is estimated that over 2.7 million homes have been sold under the program since 1980, giving millions of people an opportunity of homeownership they otherwise would not have had.

But perhaps the defining point of her leadership was the Falklands War. In 1982, the military junta in Argentina illegally invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands – an overseas British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. Against the odds, and against the desire of some of her closest advisers, she deployed a naval task force to liberate the islands. When Thatcher dispatched the task force to the South Atlantic, she had no idea if the operation would succeed or how many young men would never return home. However, she knew it was the right thing to do, and she was ready to take responsibility for the outcome, no matter which was it turned out.

In America, Margaret Thatcher will be most remembered for her steadfast support for the American-Anglo Special Relationship. She never shied away from expressing her love for the U.S., which she first visited in 1967 as a junior politician participating in the State Department’s international visitors program.

Her fondness for America later manifested itself in her close relationship with President Reagan. Thatcher stood by America at times when America’s other allies in Europe were unwilling to do so. For example, after the 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque left three people dead and hundreds wounded, including 73 U.S. servicemen, she allowed U.S. fighter jets to fly from British territory to attack sites in Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya. At the time, no other European country would let U.S. planes fly through their airspace to strike the terrorist bases in Libya.

Her greatest legacy, shared with Reagan, was bringing communism to its knees in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the end, the Soviets didn’t have to be defeated on the battlefield by millions of troops, nor did the people of Eastern Europe have to be liberated by NATO’s tanks. The Soviets were defeated and the people of Eastern Europe were liberated, because in Europe the ideas of freedom trumped oppression. Thatcher and Reagan embodied these ideas and believed in peace through strength. They both believed in capitalism and free markets – an economic system with which the central planning of communism could not compete.

-Baroness Thatcher’s legacy will no doubt outlive all of us, and her many supporters would no doubt argue that she is the greatest peacetime prime minister the U.K. has seen. Those in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere should mourn her passing.

First appeared in Cnn World.