Was Margaret Thatcher Really Transformational? (With comment by Paul)

I yield to no one in my admiration for Margaret Thatcher; this photo of me with her, taken in 1997, is displayed proudly in my library:

I agree with Paul that she saved Great Britain, at least for a generation. And Britain continues to benefit from her accomplishments: there is no Soviet threat, the unions have never regained their power, and Britain hasn’t adopted the Euro. But did she really transform British politics, as many are saying today? It seems to me that contemporary politics in Great Britain are depressingly similar to what they were in the 1970s. In my view, Thatcher, rather than having turned her country’s politics in a new direction, stands out as, unfortunately, unique in British history.

British Conservatives are, in general, quite different from their American cousins. Even Winston Churchill, as great a leader as he was, was not a conservative in the American style. But Margaret Thatcher really was one of us. She was, perhaps, the only major British politician who fit the mold, both ideologically and culturally, of an American conservative. No doubt that is partly why she was, and is, so beloved by Americans on the right.

Comparisons with Ronald Reagan are instructive. Today, it would be hard to find a Republican who doesn’t claim, at least, to be a Reaganite. Is the same true in Great Britain? I don’t think so. My sense is that contemporary Tories have sidled away from, and don’t much try to defend, Thatcher’s legacy.

Further, Reagan has come to be acknowledged on virtually all sides as a great president. Buildings and schools are named after him–not as many as he deserves, to be sure, but some. The liberals didn’t plan it this way. They hated him bitterly when he was president, and tried tirelessly to denigrate his achievements after he left office. This is how Scott and I got our start as pundits–defending the Reagan administration’s record against the slurs that were common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the end, the Left’s attacks on Reagan largely failed. While there are holdouts here and there, Democrats have mostly given up on attacking Reagan.

I don’t believe the same is true in the United Kingdom. Thatcher continues to be reviled by the Left and the British media, and it is virtually mandatory for any member of the creative classes to denounce her reflexively. My sense is that the Left has been quite successful in smearing her legacy, and that conventional wisdom, rather than crediting Thatcher for saving Britain from eclipse, blames her for the ills that remain, as though the Great Britain of the 1970s had been some kind of paradise.

I hope I am wrong, and welcome dissent from commenters as well as my partners. Maybe the reaction to her death–I understand that the biggest state funeral since Churchill’s is being planned–will demonstrate that her legacy still lives. But my fear is that Thatcher succeeded in saving Great Britain for a time, but failed to transform it.

PAUL ADDS: I don’t disagree much with John’s recitation of the facts, but still maintain that Thatcher was transformational (or transformative, as I put it in my post). She radically transformed Great Britain for a generation and, although there has been considerable backsliding, I don’t think Britain has reverted to anything like its sorry state of circa 1979.

It’s useful to consider, as John does, that current British Conservatives (the party, that is) don’t seem to revere Thatcher. But it is probably more useful to consider how the opposition party responded to the Iron Lady. As Peter Wehner notes:

Pre-Thatcher, the Labour Party was a hopeless wreck, enchanted with socialism and statism at home (it favored the wholesale nationalization of key industries) and unilateral disarmament and moral weakness abroad. The result of Thatcherism was the rise of Tony Blair, who fundamentally reshaped the British Labour Party and moved it in a much more conservative direction on issues like national security, crime, welfare, education, and economics.

Sometimes the way you measure the influence of political leaders isn’t simply their impact on their party but on the opposition. And by this standard, Mrs. Thatcher’s reach, like her beloved friend Ronald Reagan’s, was enormous.

As I said this morning, nothing is forever. Here in the U.S., the Democratic party has reverted to a left-liberalism that I believe exceeds what we witnessed pre-Reagan.

Something similar may happen in Britain. But for me, such developments don’t render Reagan and Thatcher non-transformational.


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