13 October 2015

Margaret Thatcher at 90 – why the Iron Lady matters today


Last week in Manchester, Britain’s conservatives celebrated an extraordinary election victory. In May, against all odds, the Conservative Party won an outright majority in Parliament for the first time since 1992. The election decimated the Liberal Democrats as a political force and prompted a leftward death spiral within the Labour Party.

It was a pitiful sight to behold outside Manchester Central. A rag-tag far-left army, slavish backers of Jeremy Corbyn, angrily protested the Conservatives’ conference, mindlessly chanting “Tory scum” and hurling abuse with intense hatred in their eyes and venom in their mouths. Britain’s Left was soundly beaten at the polls, and today offers nothing in the way of constructive ideas or even original thought, projecting only the intellectually bankrupt language of class warfare and an ugly intolerance for opposing views.

While the anarchists raged on the streets, conservatives were debating real ideas, free market policies aimed at empowering individuals, reducing dependency on the state, and asserting British leadership abroad. For all the talk of a ‘modernising’ revolution in the Conservative Party over the past decade, British Conservatives were largely sticking to a more traditional Thatcherite agenda, based on tried and trusted principles that worked in the 1980s and still apply today. While David Cameron’s tone was more centrist, many of his Cabinet colleagues reached out to the conservative grassroots, with Theresa May’s uncompromising message on mass immigration a case in point.

There were echoes of the Thatcher era throughout the conference, from Chancellor George Osborne’s flagship announcement of the £2 billion government selloff of shares in Lloyds TSB, to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s robust recitation of the Thatcher line “No, No, No!” in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s feckless foreign policy. Business Secretary Sajid Javid, one of the brightest rising stars in British politics, proudly proclaimed that Margaret Thatcher’s portrait was now back on the wall in his department following the exit of the Liberal Democrats from government.

The spirit of Thatcherism remains strong in the British conservative movement, not only because Thatcher’s personality and presence had been so powerful for so long at a crucially important time in British history, rescuing a nation on its deathbed, ravaged by the poisonous effects of Socialism. Thatcherism endures today because the ideas and principles advanced by the Iron Lady are timeless. Who will remember Blairism half a century from now, or what Labour’s longest-serving prime minister actually stood for or believed in (if anything)? Thatcherism, in contrast, will likely endure for generations to come. Margaret Thatcher showed how free market principles and policies can advance prosperity and individual liberty. Economic freedom, she pointed out, and not the deathly hand of state intervention, was the real engine of economic growth and rising living standards. In her own words, “it is economic liberty that nourishes the enterprise of those whose hard work and imagination ultimately determine the conditions in which we live.”

Lady Thatcher combined her free market message with a powerful defence of national sovereignty. She argued that without the right to self-determination and the ability to shape their own future, the British people would never be truly free. If she had not thrown down the gauntlet to Europe with her seminal Bruges speech in September 1988, it is highly unlikely that the British people would be voting to decide their membership of the European Union within the next two years.

As with so many issues, Thatcher was years ahead of her time, challenging conventional wisdom, and forcing the political establishment to rethink Britain’s future relationship with Europe. 14 years after Bruges, Lady Thatcher was the first political figure to outline a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and a possible exit from the EU in her 2002 book Statecraft, which identified the European Project as “perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.” The book was published 11 years before David Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg address pledging an EU referendum by 2017. In her final years, Lady Thatcher made clear in private her view that Britain should leave the European Union, a wish that is looking increasingly likely as British public opinion inches closer to Brexit and a rejection of the status quo.

Reinforcing Thatcher’s belief in economic liberty and national sovereignty was a third pillar – unyielding support for the Anglo-American Special Relationship, and her conviction that Great Britain, America and the Anglosphere nations must lead the free world. The partnership with Ronald Reagan lay at the heart of Thatcher’s worldview, and her influence on the Reagan revolution was far reaching and instrumental.

With good reason, the Iron Lady is revered by American conservatives with just as much vigour as their British counterparts – arguably even more so. It is practically impossible to hold a US presidential debate today without one or more of the candidates invoking the three-term prime minister, or mimicking her lines. Margaret Thatcher remains a tremendous inspiration across the Atlantic, not least at a time of declining American leadership internationally and the rise of continental European-style big government at home. As the world’s superpower struggles to lead, in the face of a growing array of adversaries, from Russia and Iran to ISIS, many US politicians are naturally looking back to the leadership example of Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, two titans who faced down an empire of tyranny through strength, resolve and determination.

Not only are the American people yearning for another Gipper, they are also seeking a leader imbued with the qualities of Britain’s Iron Lady. Born on October 13, 1925, today would have been Margaret Thatcher’s 90th birthday. She lived just two years shy of this milestone, but her ideas continue to thrive. Thatcherism is alive and well in the hearts of conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, and the principles that drove it are just as relevant today as they were when she entered Downing Street in 1979. At the root of its success lay the power of ideas, and an unshakeable belief in the rights of the individual over the state, combined with an extraordinary ability to relate to the everyday concerns and needs of ordinary voters. As the greengrocer’s daughter from Grantham simply put it, “those who seek to govern must in turn be willing to allow their hearts and minds to lie open to the people.” This is advice every politician should heed today at a time of mounting public disillusionment in Britain and America with the Westminster and Washington political establishment.

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