24 June 2015

Forget ‘leading from behind’ – Margaret Thatcher led from the front


“To overcome evil requires the bravest of men.” These were the concluding words written by Margaret Thatcher in her personal hand written account of the Falklands War, just released by the Thatcher Foundation. The 17,000 word document is a powerful recollection of the Iron Lady’s actions as prime minister following Argentina’s invasion of the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic on April 2, 1982. Even though the Falklands lie over 8,000 miles from Britain, Thatcher was determined to liberate the Islands and its then 1,800 inhabitants, dispatching a naval task force within the space of just 48 hours, which at its height included more than a hundred ships, two aircraft carriers, three submarines and 27,000 British military personnel. In just 11 weeks the Falklands had been retaken. As Mrs. Thatcher subsequently declared in a speech in Cheltenham after the defeat of the Argentine junta: “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat… Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.”

Margaret Thatcher defied the odds to lead Britain to victory, when many around her urged her to negotiate with the enemy, and believed that fighting a war on the other side of the globe was reckless folly. This was real leadership, restoring a sense of British greatness after decades of decline, sending a message to the world. In Thatcher’s words, “when you are at war you cannot allow the difficulties to dominate your thinking: you have to set out an iron will to overcome them.” There was never any doubt, from the moment Argentine boots had landed on British soil, that the Iron Lady would respond decisively and with great determination to ensure that the Falkland Islanders would once again enjoy the right to self-determination, and live in freedom and not under foreign occupation.

Contrast Thatcher’s approach to winning the Falklands War with Barack Obama’s utter lack of leadership when faced with the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria. President Obama recently admitted (once again), at the G7 summit in Bavaria, that his administration has no big picture strategy for defeating ISIS, other than to rely upon the woefully inadequate Iraqi security forces. Thatcher’s strategy in the Falklands, as it was with the Cold War against the Soviets, was to secure victory. There was no question of retreat or defeat, or sitting on the sidelines. Thatcher had absolute faith in her cause and the ability of her armed forces to prevail when called upon to confront evil. She recognised that freedom had to be fought for and defended, investing the necessary resources to ensure that Britain’s military was prepared to enter the fray when called upon.

In many respects President Obama’s striking lack of leadership is the antithesis of Thatcher’s approach. The weak-kneed Obama doctrine of “leading from behind” (a phrase coined by a White House adviser) has undermined America’s standing on the world stage, weakened U.S.-led alliances and partnerships, while emboldening America’s adversaries. From Tehran to Pyongyang and Moscow the enemies of freedom have grown stronger while the world’s superpower has become more inward-looking and hesitant to act. America’s allies are increasingly losing faith in American leadership at a time when the threats to international security are mounting. It is little wonder that Mr. Obama, in one of his first actions as President of the United States, removed a bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. The spirit of Churchillian grit in the face of adversity could not be further from Obama’s own unwillingness to confront the enemies of freedom. With good reason, in her final years, Lady Thatcher feared that American leadership was in decline, and that the Anglo-American Special Relationship was under threat. It was always her view that America must lead, with Britain alongside her.

Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was embodied by courage, conviction, decisiveness, and deep-seated patriotism. She was also driven by a strong sense of destiny and purpose. Thatcher believed that her role was to roll back the frontiers of Socialism at home while standing up to tyranny abroad. She abhorred lowest common denominator, consensus-based decision-making, telling an audience in Australia in 1981: “To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects — the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.” Like Churchill before her, she was not afraid to stand alone, putting principle before power, placing conservative ideals at the heart of her government. She always preferred to take her message directly to the people, rather than cut backroom deals away from public scrutiny.

At the heart of Thatcher’s thinking was the view that economic freedom, and not big government, was essential to individual liberty and prosperity. Her successes on the world stage, from victory in the Falklands to facing down the Kremlin, were based on the bedrock of a sound economy at home, and the rise of economic liberty in Britain. The engine of Britain’s resurgence as a world power in the 1980s was the defeat of Socialism, and the ascendancy of free market policies. This allowed for a greater investment in Britain’s defences, and a more robust approach to international affairs. It is no coincidence that the post-imperial decline of Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s took place at a time when the size of government had never been bigger. The fading of British power marched in parallel with the rise of Socialism, with the “sick man” of Europe walking in the shoes of what had been, just a few decades earlier, the most powerful nation on earth.

But even in the dark days of the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher rejected the notion of inevitable decline, and offered a positive vision, delivering a message of unbridled optimism as Leader of the Opposition. While her Labour foes floundered in a sea of indecision, pessimism and gloom, Thatcher offered a brighter picture of Britain’s future, one based on the simple idea that individuals, freed from the shackles of government intervention, can create wealth and opportunity, igniting an economic renewal. One of the most powerful speeches of her pre-Downing Street career was delivered to an audience of jaded bankers and economists at the Zurich Economic Society in 1977, the high-water mark of British Socialism. Stunning her listeners, Thatcher promised “a new renaissance matching anything in our island’s long and outstanding history” if elected to office. “The darkest hour is just before the dawn,” she said. “I come to you in a mood of optimism. I have reason to believe that the tide is beginning to turn against collectivism, statism, dirigisme whatever you call it. And this turn is rooted in a revulsion against the sour fruit of socialism.”

This was an example of leading from the front, and exemplified what Thatcher’s leadership was all about – visionary, daring, bold and imbued with faith in the human spirit and the principles of liberty that sustain it. It was a message delivered nearly four decades ago, but which rings true today. Margaret Thatcher was determined to lift a nation off its knees, and restore its sense of self-worth. In many ways she succeeded, and Britain stopped being a nation in decline. Perhaps the next US president should take note, as he or she takes the reins of a superpower in retreat, saddled with $18 trillion of debt, and facing an array of growing challenges from Iraq to Ukraine.

Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.