The Shadow of the Iron Lady

Why Margaret Thatcher still makes life difficult for Britain's Conservatives.

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

LONDON — The single greatest testament to the life and career of Margaret Thatcher is that it is impossible to imagine what Britain would be like in 2013 had she never existed or never become prime minister. Love her or revile her, this Iron Titan made every other postwar prime minister seem a pygmy by comparison.

Thatcher challenged the widely accepted notion that decline — both relative and absolute — was inevitable. No, no, no … it was not. Britain did not have to be the sick man of Europe. Her mission was to put the Great back into Great Britain. She so transformed British politics that every mainstream party, whether left or right, is an heir to Thatcher.

The arguments that rage in Britain today — over the country’s relationship with the European Union, over the size and purpose of the state, over the nature and extent of the welfare state — all began in the age of Margaret Thatcher. She did not settle all these questions, but she made the weather for today’s politics. She was a politician of consequence: The Lady was not for turning, and there has been no turning back from her legacy. No Margaret Thatcher, no Tony Blair. No Tony Blair, no David Cameron. We still live in the shadow of Thatcherism.

Her legacy is everywhere. She sold off huge chunks of social housing at discount prices, helping aspirational Britons onto the property ladder. If Britain was once a nation of shopkeepers (according to Napoleon), it became in the 1980s, for the first time really, a true democracy of property owners. An obsession with permanently rising house prices would prove damaging 20 years after the Iron Lady fell, but in her 1980s pomp, millions of working-class and lower-middle-class Britons were grateful for the chance to buy their own homes.

She believed in a stockholders’ democracy too. When she came to power, British business was nationalized to an extraordinary degree. The government owned hotels and trash removal companies, as well as steel and shipbuilding industries. None were any good. Thatcher privatized state-owned industries such as British Airways, British Telecom, and British Gas. Millions of Britons purchased shares in the newly privatized utilities (though most were sold soon after), and almost every newspaper offered lucrative competitions to their readers based on the performance of the stock market. Financial deregulation — the so-called "Big Bang" of 1986 — transformed the City of London’s prospects, kick-starting a revolution in financial services that saw London regain its place as a global financial behemoth. Here too, a critic might suggest, the seeds of 2008’s great financial crash were sown. Nevertheless, from Latin America to India, other countries followed Britain’s lead.

Like every other great leader — and, like her or not, few dispute Thatcher’s greatness — she contained contradictions. She was a very pragmatic revolutionary. When she became leader of the Tory party in 1975, she could barely muster support from much more than half the Conservative parliamentary caucus. Nor were Thatcherites in a majority in her first cabinets. She and her small band of supply-side true believers were outnumbered by the so-called "wets" on the Tory benches.

Indeed, Thatcherism was an insurgency that only slowly took control of the Conservative Party. And though she won three thumping election victories, Thatcherism never quite enjoyed a majority in the country at large. Although many — most of them men — were devoted to her, she was more widely admired than loved. And, of course, she was hated too.

Her downfall was two-pronged. Trouble on the home front was combined with problems abroad to devastating effect. A disastrous reform of local taxation, following her third election victory in 1987, levied flat rates — regardless of personal circumstance or income — and was swiftly and devastatingly dubbed a new "poll tax." She seemed out of touch, indifferent to suggestions that it was manifestly unfair for a duke to pay the same charge as a bus driver. Her political judgment, for so long so sure, had failed.

Europe was her undoing. Although she had signed treaties that would inevitably lead to greater European integration, she was bitterly opposed to any moves toward a single currency or a continental "superstate." Arguments about whether the British pound should shadow the Deutsche mark or join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism provoked the resignations of Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the Exchequer, and Geoffrey Howe, the former foreign secretary turned deputy prime minister. Those earthquakes produced a leadership challenge that proved fatal. But her opposition to a single currency now seems prescient.

None of the five men who have succeeded her as leader of the Tory party have found a satisfactory means of healing the divisions within the party over Europe that first erupted during the Lady’s reign. At best, a series of temporary truces have been called — but the bigger questions, first asked by Thatcher, about Britain’s relationship with Europe remain unanswered. These issues helped cripple John Major’s premiership and may yet ruin Cameron’s too.

In the five elections since Thatcher was defenestrated by her own party, the Tories have won just one majority (Major’s narrow, come-from-behind victory in 1992). Thatcher’s legacy has loomed large. Paradoxically, her great victories came, at least in part, at the expense of her own party’s future fortunes.

By the end of the 1980s, the Tory party was beginning to be thought of as "the nasty party." Thatcherism’s emphasis on the individual and its skepticism of government interventions in the market had brought the British economy back to life (with the not-inconsiderable help of North Sea oil revenues). Labor unions no longer decided — as they had in the 1970s — who would govern Britain or how they would govern the country. Her confrontations with the unions — notably the coal miners — were brutal but necessary. The decline of sclerotic heavy industry may have been inevitable, but in too many parts of Britain jobs, lost in coal-mining, steel-production, and shipbuilding were not replaced. A generation was lost in the north of England, south Wales, and the west of Scotland. Joblessness and welfare dependency followed. It became easy to portray Conservative ministers as out of touch and heartless, indifferent to the suffering caused by the wholesale reorientation of the British economy.

The "up by your bootstraps" ethos was all very well and good, but what, critics asked, if you had no boots in the first place? You might accept that something had to be done to revitalize Britain, but for many the cost proved appallingly high. Thatcher was portrayed — to the point of gross caricature — as a prime minister who blamed the poor for their poverty. This was unfair, yet it contained a germ of truth. There was, especially in her later years, an uncompromising harshness to Thatcherite rhetoric that proved toxic. Blair neither could nor wanted to roll back the Thatcherite revolution, but though he accepted her economic reforms he realized that Britain was ready for a softer, more inclusive approach to society. Where Thatcher believed in the individual, Blair was a communitarian. He reformed the Thatcherite settlement more than he challenged it.

More than 15 years after the Lady fell, Cameron was elected on a mandate to modernize and detoxify the Conservative Party’s image. Henceforth, the party would offer voters a British brand of "compassionate Conservatism." Where Thatcher divided the country, Cameron would return to the "One Nation" Tory tradition. He would be a unifier, not a divider.

Events have complicated that process. The consequences of the financial crash and Gordon Brown’s spendthrift years in power have forced Cameron to recalibrate his ambitions. Austerity is little more popular now than it was when Thatcher came to power in 1979. But where Thatcher relished confrontation, Cameron is by nature a more conciliatory figure. This, too, has complicated his task. Restructuring Britain’s public finances has proved a painful business; the public approves of austerity and welfare reform in the abstract, but shies away from specific cuts. Efforts at reform have cost Cameron dearly, jeopardizing his detoxification project. Meanwhile, the prime minister is assailed by right-wing Thatcherite true-believers within his party, but not every policy question can be answered by asking, "What would Maggie do?"

In truth, Thatcher was more pragmatic than is sometimes recognized. She reoriented the British economy but did not dramatically shrink the size of the state. Even so, her premiership remains the gold standard by which postwar British prime ministers are judged. Her legacy is as enormous as it is divisive. None of her successors has moved beyond the shadow the Iron Lady still casts, even in death. Nor does it look as though Cameron will prove any exception to that trend.

She was the last of the great conviction politicians, and her death merely magnifies the extent to which she overshadows her successors. Gloria Swanson’s famous line in Sunset Boulevard could usefully be adapted to serve as Margaret Thatcher’s epitaph: "I am big! It’s the politics that got small."

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