Margaret Thatcher was a winner. She won three elections in a row for the Conservatives – her second victory not only made her “the first leader of any party” in the twentieth century “to serve a full term and then increase her majority” but that increase “was the greatest [for any government] in parliamentary history.” Her third victory marked her as the most winning British politician of the modern era – so much that her preferred memoir title was “Undefeated.” But Thatcher did more than gain and keep power: she used it. The secrets to her success were her convictions, her character, and her courage.
Figure 1. All she did was win.
Charles Moore, the author of a three volume biography we review here, relates that “she carried in her head a picture of her country derived from its past greatness and energetically projected on to its future. It was more restorationist than revolutionary, though the restoration would sometimes require revolutionary methods.” Whether Thatcher was a traditionalist or a radical remains a subject of debate, especially in her own party. “To her, the habits of ancient institutions were not mere outward show. She believed they represented something deep and proud in the history of her country.” Thatcher loved a Latin motto translated as “To stand on the ancient ways, To see which is the right and good way, And in that way to walk.” But at the same time, “She had the radical’s total lack of embarrassment about arguing from first principles. Above all, she had the radical’s permanent angry impatience for change.”
That impatience fueled a legendary work ethic, in which she consumed and sharply commented upon reams of paper at all hours. “Mrs Thatcher’s chief method of exerting her will over the machine was not institutional but personal. She used every remark, every memo, every meeting as an opportunity to challenge existing habits, criticize any sign of ignorance, confusion or waste and preach incessantly the main aims of her administration.” The effect was galvanizing: When one of her junior ministers was dashing through the House of Commons, someone cried out “Slow down, slow down! Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “Well,” he replied, “Margaret Thatcher wasn’t the foreman on the job.”
Figure 2. Thatcher was simply always working: turning down a coveted opportunity for a backstage tour of the Kremlin in favor of studying her briefing books, she complained “Do you think I’ve come here as a tourist?”
Thatcher’s first challenge was beating double-digit inflation – and I will try my best to render monetary policy as straightforward as possible but, if your eyes glaze over, you can skip ahead to fighting unions and Communists (sometimes one and the same). A major reason why the post-war consensus was subject to successful assault was that the Keynesian economists entrusted to run things were thoroughly bewildered by the simultaneous presence of both high unemployment and high inflation: according to Keynes, the two should be balanced against each other, each requiring opposite responses. Thatcher’s prescription was the tough medicine of monetarism, a theory popularized by Milton Friedman and simultaneously being put into place by Paul Volcker in the United States. Monetarism rejected central bank tinkering in response to different economic conditions – Friedman feared there were excessive, destabilizing lags between a problem like unemployment arising; central bankers discovering and interpreting the problem through statistic collection; and central bankers finally conjuring and applying unpredictable, bespoke, and heavy-handed responses. Instead, the central bank should apply predetermined rules controlling the supply of money to preserve price stability and give businesses the opportunity to confidently plan for the future.
The problem is that this takes time to work, sometimes more time than democratic leaders have before their next election. To confidently save, invest, or contract with their apparently decreasingly valuable currency, people have to truly believe that the government will not suddenly print and cheaply lend truckloads more. Thus, the immediate impact of Thatcher’s policies was to multiply unemployment without decreasing inflation. Ted Heath, the Conservative leader she ousted, pounced, publicly suggesting her failure, and demanding for a return to the post-war consensus. In response, Thatcher demonstrated her resolution, famously declaring before a roaring Conservative crowd, “You turn [back] if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” She insisted that consensus was “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.” Thatcher’s vigilance would eventually be vindicated as inflation and unemployment both dropped over her tenure – but it did not happen before her first re-election. Until then she was barely able to keep in line her own party, filled with skeptical wets ready to return to consensus at any hint of failure. Thatcher herself was committed to monetarism but was always nervous about raising interest rates. She worried that “preventing people from borrowing was a sure way to crush the aspirations which she wished, for reasons of belief and of party politics, to foster” and “she hated the idea that young people on or approaching the housing ladder should be penalized by a Tory government.” But Thatcher kept administering the medicine to cure the bigger danger of inflation. When the election did come in 1982, her posters proclaimed “no Labour government had ever brought down the level of unemployment.” And Labour helped her enormously by publishing a far-left platform called “the longest suicide note in history.” But none of that might have saved her if it were not for the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.
Figure 3. A sign worth hanging in political offices, judicial chambers, central bank lobbies.
The Falklands are an archipelago a little smaller than Connecticut about 300 miles from Argentina and 8,000 miles from Britain, then with a population of about 1,800. Though the islands had been continuously occupied by British settlers for over a century and claimed for much longer, Spain and its local successor Argentina also had an uneven presence on the islands until the 1830s. By the 1980s, the British, to the degree that anyone thought of the Falklands at all, considered them a nuisance: their maintenance cost money, they had practically no strategic value anymore, and the Argentines complained across Latin America about continued British colonialism. Indeed, the civil service had long been trying to figure out a diplomatic way to give them up. Calculating that the British wouldn’t bother defending a nuisance and hoping to patriotically distract their population from economic woes, the Argentine junta invaded the islands in 1982.
They terribly misjudged Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher immediately understood she must retake the islands. If she were to allow British territory to be seized, she would be advertising that more significant territories like Hong Kong and Gibraltar were doormats to willing aggressors. To concede the Falklands diplomatically was one thing, but to surrender the islands would be a blight on British national prestige, confirming the descent of the Empire into a second-rate nation. But there was an additional element: the islands were filled with people who had been British citizens for generations and wished to remain so within their homes. An inexact analogy might be if a Philippine dictatorship invaded the Northern Marianas, which you might be indifferent to until realizing that the Northern Marianas are part of the United States and filled with proud Americans.
And yet even if the moral answer was clear, outside military experts considered the retaking a significant logistical challenge. Thatcher had been trying to cut government spending across the board and the ministry of Defense had easily found economies in the insignificant South Atlantic. The British Navy needed three weeks to sail from the UK to the Falklands and had to rely on what they brought with them, as opposed to the Argentines who were fighting just off their coast. Undeterred, Thatcher took the advice of her husband Denis, a veteran of World War II: “Get the Chiefs, give them clear objectives and then get out of the way.” This she did, and the British military proved up to the job. In the subsequent election, a heckler shouted at future Labour leader Neil Kinnock that Thatcher had “guts.” Kinnock replied that it was “a pity that people had to leave theirs on the ground [in the Falklands] in order to prove it.” Labour, as we have relayed, badly lost.
Figure 4. Argentina may have taken a lot of Germans after World War II but they failed to learn that the Empire strikes back.
The Falklands would not be her only test of courage. In 1984, the Irish Republican Army bombed the hotel hosting the Conservative Party conference, killing five and injuring dozens. The IRA miscalculated where Thatcher was staying but if she had even been in a different part of her own room, she probably would have been badly injured. Immediately, she insisted the convention go on: “We must show that terrorism cannot defeat democracy.” This was not the first nor the last time she would be affected by IRA terrorism: her brilliant campaign manager Airey Neave had already been killed in a car bomb, her very capable backbench manager Ian Gow would die of the same fate. In church after the convention, she reflected “This is the day I was not meant to see. And Then I remembered my friends who cannot see it. I have never known such a blend of gratitude and sorrow.” Denis subsequently gave her a watch with the inscription, “Every minute is precious.”
The bombing occurred amidst an entirely different confrontation for which Thatcher had long been preparing. The British coal-miners’ union had been a dominant force in British politics for years, all the more so since the oil embargo, because they provided, through a nationalized industry, Britain’s heat. The coal-miners were considered one part of an unstoppable insatiable union triumvirate that also included railroad men and dock workers: combined, they could and did halt the British economy at their pleasure. When Ted Heath had been Prime Minister, he had talked a good game but ultimately conceded to their demands, helping bring down his own government. Thatcher was determined to be different. She made some initial concessions while laying the legal groundwork for breaking a strike and ordering a surplus of coal to be stored and warehoused to withstand it.
From 1984 into 1985, the Marxist union leader Arthur Scargill, determined to bring down Thatcher in the same manner as Heath, led two-thirds of Britain’s coal-miners out on strike in the largest labor action in decades. But his very extremity hurt his cause: having lost national ballots of workers in the past, Scargill refused to hold one, rendering the strike technically illegal. Previous governments had made martyrs out of illegally striking union leaders by arresting them; Thatcher instead used a new legal regime to take their money. Scargill then accepted funds from Libya and the Soviet Union, radioactive actions that highlighted how out of touch he was, while Thatcher had already won over many union members through her patriotic leadership. Above all, Scargill alienated the wets who wanted to compromise by refusing “to budge from his position that no pit should ever be closed for economic reasons, but only if its seams were exhausted (or unsafe).” Thatcher reframed the old battle: this was not a fight between her and Scargill, but an attempt by Scargill to coerce the British people. After a long year, the strike ended without a deal. Thatcher’s failure to flinch paved the way for labor reforms across society, even of the lawyers’ guild, that rejected extortion in favor of economics.
Figure 5. Scargill was used to waiting for the perfect pitch but this time struck out.
Of course, one of the reasons why Thatcher had to deal so directly with the coal-miners was because the industry, along with telecommunications, oil, automobiles, steel, airlines, and too many others were all owned by the government. In fact, when Thatcher had taken over in 1979, “a seventh of the British workforce was employed by nationalized industries.” She was determined to restore market incentives to the British economy – and she started with what would become perhaps her most popular achievement: selling public housing to its current occupants. “By 1983, it would become commonplace for people, mainly from the upper working class, to declare ‘Maggie got me my house.” In real numbers, the share of British households in government housing would go from nearly a third to less than 10 percent. When she won again in 1982, her team put together “one of the most ambitious plans for legislation ever laid before a British Cabinet” – a series of specific dates for industries to be sold back into the private sector – and then they did it, netting the government billions of dollars, the economy a more efficient footing, and shareholders a fresh and growing stake in British prosperity. By the end of her tenure, Thatcher would deregulate financial markets making the City of London the financial capital of Europe and cut the tax burden. The only significant fiscal goal Thatcher fell short on – she herself acknowledged “I asked for too little, didn’t I?” – was in the overall spending of government, which increased every year but, significantly, decreased as a proportion of GDP. Ultimately, Thatcher’s most lasting domestic legacy was her dismantling of the post-war consensus and the prosperity that resulted.
What Thatcher was most proud of, however, was her role in winning the Cold War. The Iron Lady was an especially articulate anti-communist, and that ended up credentialing her, somewhat ironically, in cultivating the leaders of both superpowers: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan, of course, is less of a surprise: he described her as his “soulmate” and they shared similar views on politics domestic (market-oriented) and foreign (anticommunist). They did differ over nuclear weapons – Reagan wanted their abolition, Thatcher insisted that mutually assured destruction was the best route to peace (in this, a retired Richard Nixon encouraged her.) She was annoyed over the American invasion of Grenada, a former British colony, but Reagan charmingly apologized: “If I were there, Margaret, I’d throw my hat in the door before I came in.” But when she needed help with the retaking Falklands, Reagan countered some of his team: “Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.” When America needed help punishing the Libyans, Thatcher insisted, despite some unpopular politics, “We have to support the Americans on this. That’s what allies are for.” Reagan would write her after leaving office, “I feel that the Lord brought us together for a profound purpose and that I have been richly blessed for having known you. I am proud to call you one of my dearest friends, Margaret; proud to have shared many of life’s significant moments with you; and thankful that God brought you into my life.” When asked who should give his eulogy, Reagan insisted on Margaret. All of this intense personal diplomacy translated into genuine worldwide influence and betterment for the interests of both Britain and freedom for the 8 years they shared power. But in the end, her influence frayed: she would not enjoy remotely the same relationship with the “wobbly” George Bush, who concluded that a united Germany was the future of a continent where America did not have “exclusive friends.” Luckily, by then, the stage was already set for the Cold War to be won.
Unexpectedly, she enjoyed a better relationship with Gorbachev than Bush. Thatcher had always sung the virtues of freedom, challenging the world, “what is there in the Soviet system to admire? Material prosperity? It does not produce it. Spiritual satisfaction? It denies it.” She warned “when the Soviet leaders jail a writer, or a priest, or a doctor or a worker, for the crime of speaking freely, it is not only for humanitarian reasons that we should be concerned. For these acts reveal a regime that is afraid of truth and liberty; it dare not allow its people to enjoy the freedom we take for granted, and a nation that denies those freedoms to its own people will have few scruples in denying them to others.” When she first met Gorbachev, she “deliberately and breathtakingly…set about serially cross-examining him about the inferiority of the Soviet centralised command system and the merits of free enterprise and competition.” Gorbachev proved an amused interlocutor and Thatcher recognized that he represented something different from anything the Soviet leadership had produced in the past: a genuine reformer. She, the ultimate anti-communist, publicly validated, especially to her dear friend Reagan who hadn’t yet met him, that Gorbachev was a man with whom the west could do business. Thatcher probably took her support for Gorbachev too far as she considered the balance of power at the end of the Cold War, but she deserves much credit for her searing moral clarity. In her own memoirs, she described a visit to Poland after the Iron Curtain fell:
She attended Mass at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. As the priest rose to deliver his sermon, she realized, though she did not speak Polish, ‘that I had become the focus of attention’. The priest, she paraphrased, was telling his congregation that ‘during the dark years of communism’ the Poles had been sustained by many voices from the outside world ‘offering hope of a different and better life’. But they had come ‘to identify with one voice in particular – my own’. They had not fully felt the change until that day ‘when they finally saw me in their own church’. Lines of children presented Lady Thatcher with bouquets of flowers while their parents stood and applauded. Her chief of staff, Julian Seymour, who was present that day, remembers this as ‘the most electrifying moment of my two decades-plus involvement with her’. In the last paragraph of her book, Lady Thatcher declares her wish that the congregation of the Church of the Holy Cross should be her ‘character witnesses’ on Judgment Day
Figure 6. Click to buy Charles Moore’s three volume biography of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning (10/10); Everything She Wants (8/10); and Herself Alone (9/10). The first volume is the best, and from which much of this specific email is derived. Once Thatcher becomes Prime Minister, Moore chooses to address her life by topic rather than chronology, which is probably the right decision for understanding but is a little jumpy. Altogether, the biography can be forgivably over-comprehensive, is sympathetic but frank, and hopefully leaves you inspired by her example.
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