Looking back at Margaret Thatcher, one can see that she was far more interesting than the caricatures would have it. If you look beyond her “handbagging” of opponents, beyond her hardhearted rep as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” (from poor kids), beyond her nasal voice, you see that she was a revolutionary.
She fit her times. She shook up a tired, ossified Britain- sometimes for the worse, but frequently for the better. Her uber-conservatism was a necessary tonic for an England gone gray. But beware of any efforts by Thatcher’s euologizers to apply her formulas to today’s America. Her prescriptions suited 1980s England, but not the United States of 2013.
What was so astonishing about Thatcher is that she didn’t only shatter the glass ceiling - she shattered the class ceiling. Before she took office it was not only inconceivable for a woman to lead Britain (or any major Western state) it was inconceivable that a grocer’s daughter could do so. An archaic class system smothered British political, social and economic life like a heavy rug.
Several years before she took office, I did a master’s degree at London School of Economics. Most of my British fellow-students – who came from middle class homes - were planning to emigrate because they felt there was no opportunity for them there.
The country was heavily statist, to an extent inconceivable in America, even during the Great Depression. The economy was dominated by government-owned industries, including a mining industry that was largely obsolete and controlled by an archaic union; inflation was crippling, massive strikes frequent, and innovation lacking.
Thatcher jolted her country out of its comfort zone and galvanized its middle classes – at a cost.
Yes, she went to far in her effort to shrink the British state and its social safety net, and to deregulate everything in sight, and her callousness was indeed chilling. (One perfect example: the mess that she made in privatizing the vital railroad system.) But Britain was so frozen in its old mode that a less draconian effort probably would have fallen flat.
And when it came to foreign policy, she deserves credit for backbone for some key decisions. First, was, her unpopular support in the 1980s, alongside her buddy Ronald Reagan, for the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. That tough call forced the Soviets to back off their deployment of powerful SS-20 missiles in Soviet-controlled parts of Europe, which threatened Western Europe.
When its bluff was called, the Kremlin ultimately signed a new arms control treaty in which all these weapons were withdrawn.
Thatcher also recognized Mikhail Gorbachev's potential as a reformer early (before Reagan). And she firmly backed George HW Bush in the correct Iraq war, to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
What’s fascinating is that the same issues she championed – austerity, deregulation, shrinking government, and standing tall against enemies – form the core of today’s political debate in America. I’ll admit that I’d like to see the White House show a bit of her foreign policy toughness and self-confidence when dealing with Syria. (On North Korea they are doing fine.)
But our post Cold War world is much more diffuse and its challenges far more complex than Thatcher’s world. The Iron Lady offers no good model for American conservatives who embrace her domestic themes (or even for her British conservative successors who are torturing their economy with a toxic austerity medicine that kills growth.)
We have seen, to our great cost, the consequences of too much deregulation. And we desperately need more government investment in infrastructure and research in order to compete.
Moveover, Thatcher’s fabled disdain for consensus, as a violation of principle, doesn’t fit the United States, either. The British parliamentary system, where the winning party is supposed to run the show, isn’t meant for consensus. The U.S. system, on the other hand, can’t run without it. Thatcher was the right woman for her times and country, but not ours.