The Iron Lady Passes

There will be numerous eulogies today from people who knew her well, and most will focus on Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister, when her wit and skill made her a force to be reckoned with, one whose message extends beyond her time. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore how she got there in the first place, and how it informs the decisions of our own day. Consider the clash within the Conservatives in the mid-1970s. Ted Heath, the Mitch McConnell of his day, had won the Prime Ministership stressing more free market views, but then embarked on all sorts of disconcerting steps: income and price controls, dropping his labor union reforms like a hot rock, subsidies for industry cronies, nationalizing Rolls Royce. Thatcher was originally seen as a Heath acolyte within the Tory wing, given a cabinet position in Education – but the distance between them grew, and she became closer to fellow Cabinet member Keith Joseph, forming a tiny band of back benchers disagreeing with the aims of the party leadership. She did not oppose him or undermine leadership publicly, but she was careful to keep this cronyist approach to industry-driven governance at arm’s length. Heath’s approach failed at the ballot box. After losing the election in 1974 and failing to form a coalition government with the Liberal Party (a No Labels-esque “Government of National Unity), he took it as a sign that the Tories had to move leftward in order to adapt to the opinions of the nation. Thatcher disagreed, and that made all the difference. When Joseph announced that he would challenge Heath for party leadership, Thatcher was the only Cabinet member to endorse him; when Joseph was forced to withdraw (thanks to demography comments implying the working class really ought to consider using birth control more regularly – the speech is here), he was forced to withdraw. So Thatcher insisted she would run. No one took this seriously. She had to be a stalking horse for a different candidate – new rules allowed candidates to enter after the first round of voting if it was inconclusive. But Thatcher insisted she was in it to win. John O’Sullivan describes it: “At a meeting of sympathetic journalists, the Daily Telegraph’s Frank Johnson asked her what she would do after the leadership election. “I shall be leader of the Conservative Party,” she replied. “No, I mean, really,” said Johnson, slightly nettled at being treated like part of a public press conference. “Frank,” she responded, “I would not run for this job if I did not really think I could win it.” And she did, on the first ballot. That’s all fine, the press said at the time. But this was leadership of a down in the dumps party, one out of step with the populace. The dominant assumption was that she would have to moderate to become acceptable to the British people. She did not. Instead, she repackaged conservative principles with a message of common sense and optimism, attacking nonsensical regulation, union dominance, and high taxes with verve. She promised hope and growth, not dour austerity, and insisted that acceptance of a nation in decline was a choice, not an inevitability. She won. And the world changed because of it. RIP.

  1. Mollie Hemingway

    I’m so very curious who other people think of when they read this account. Meaning, are you ready to get behind someone in American politics who you think shows this courage and strength and principle? And who is that person?

  2. Butters
    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: I’m so very curious who other people think of when they read this account. Meaning, are you ready to get behind someone in American politics who you think shows this courage and strength and principle? And who is that person? · 5 minutes ago

    Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker

  3. Umbra Fractus
    Butters

    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: I’m so very curious who other people think of when they read this account. Meaning, are you ready to get behind someone in American politics who you think shows this courage and strength and principle? And who is that person? · 5 minutes ago

    Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker · 1 hour ago

    Rand Paul has been in Congress for barely over two years; Cruz for a whopping four months. When Lady Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition she had been in Parliament for sixteen years; twenty when she became Prime Minister. She spent most of her time from 59-75 doing very little to undermine Ted Heath’s leadership. In the US in 2013, we’d be screaming “Establishment!” and trying to primary her out of office.

    (Word Limit!)

  4. Umbra Fractus

    The question is not merely who do we have with strength of conviction, but who do we have who has conviction and is ready to assume a leadership role? Scott Walker, maybe, though I’m sure if he tried some Tea Party group would point out that he compromised with the Democrats over some trifle when he first took office and declare him unfit to lead. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are fun to watch, and I’m certainly glad they’re in the Senate, but they’re not ready to lead.

  5. Western Chauvinist

    I predict Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democrat nominee (yeah, I’m really going out on a limb). I think conservatives only have a chance to pause the transformational progressive project by playing by the senseless identity rules the Left has established. 

    I’m not happy about it, but I think Sarah Palin may be our only hope. We have to have someone genial, with conviction, and willing to fight back. And we have to have a woman.

    I’m not happy about it because I don’t think Palin is fully intellectually formed, and I hate these superficial identity games. But, that’s where we are.

  6. Barbara Kidder

    After reading the first five comments above, I offer a few random thoughts:

    Margaret Thatcher had education, legislative experience and determination, personality and ‘gravitas’;

    Sarah Palin has courage, campaign experience and spunk but can be verbose; 

    Rand Paul has ‘inherited’ credibility and the frame-work for a national campaign, and  a calm, unruffled manner;

    Marco Rubio is smart, has great oratory skills, good ‘ethnic’ bona fides, and some ‘baggage’ which will be used against him, should he run for the presidency;

    Ted Cruz is smart and amazingly succinct, has experience as Texas AG, has Cuban/American lineage, but a potential problem with his place of birth, which could stall his campaign in Federal Court;

    Scott Walker will be cast as an opportunist, if he runs for president, after seeking re-election as governor of Wisconsin in 2014, and after writing a book  (to be out in late 2013 with a former Bush speech-writer),

    and his record in Wisconsin state politics since 1993 will be fodder for critics from the left and right.

    Thus, the only one we can really know is Lady Margaret Thatcher, and even she was not able to repeal socialized medicine in England!