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.