When Margaret Thatcher, then 53, appeared at the door of 10, Downing Street exactly 30 years ago today, hubris and self-doubt were not things that worried her. Having won the first of what would be three general election victories, her address to the British people was not modest and self-deprecating in the traditional fashion. She clothed herself, rather, in the words of a Saint Francis of Assisi. “Where there is discord,” she quoted, “may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
Inevitably, with the anniversary of her assumption of power, the looms are whirling in the always lively Thatcher cottage-industry, with new books and new takes on the perennially interesting questions: What precisely did Margaret Thatcher do, and how did she do it
Thatcher herself, who is in poor health, is sadly unable to contribute to the discussion of her legacy. But the questions are of more than academic interest. In the sheer scope of her ambition her determination to reset national priorities and change a national discourse, to roll back the state, reward enterprise, challenge what she believed was a dangerously accommodationist attitude to Soviet power the Thatcher enterprise has obvious parallels to that of Barack Obama, even if their ideological trajectories differ. So what lessons might the U.S. president draw from one of the most successful politicians of modern times
First, that Thatcher knew exactly what she wanted. She was extremely smart, with a stunning grasp of policy detail and extraordinary powers of concentration. But she evaluated policy options against a very short set of criteria. Did a proposal reduce taxation or increase it Did it expand economic freedom or restrict it Did it strengthen Britain’s role in the world or diminish it Did it reward initiative or encourage dependency Keeping things simple enabled her to maintain focus on what she really wanted to achieve.
Second, though she was revolutionary in her intent, she could be remarkably pragmatic in her execution. Domestically, she knew the British would never accept a replacement for their cherished National Health Service, which promises care free at the point of use, so she settled for creating an internal market within the NHS that was supposed to make it more efficient. Internationally, it was the Iron Lady who first recognized that Mikhail Gorbachev was a “man we can do business with,” an insight that paved the way for the bloodless end of the Cold War. Financially she was remarkably circumspect in the way she went about privatizing state-owned businesses, first appointing soul mates to head up the nationalized industries, then establishing stiff financial and business targets. Only when she was sure the ground had been properly tilled did she sell a business off.
She had one big advantage over Obama. She was a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system, not a President who has to handle a Congress that is constitutionally coequal. Not until her last term, when she lost the confidence of much of the Conservative Party over European policy, did she ever have to worry about whether her foot soldiers in the House of Commons would back her on anything important. Obama has no such luxury. By comparison with the British political system, that of the U.S. is slow, messy, fragmented, and remarkably open to lobbying by powerful interest groups. That does not make it easy to get things done.
Thatcher’s true genius was her relentless focus on making policy in support of a remarkably prosaic goal: to let middle-class folk feel that hard work would be rewarded in a better future for their children. Prosaic but a profound break with what had gone before. Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer from a small town in the dullest county of England, spoke for all those with zippered cardigans and frocks from Marks & Spencer, pottering around garden centers at the weekend, dreaming that they could one day afford something more than a camping trip to France in August. Sure, she was quite at home in the glittery salons of wealth and fame, but Mrs. Thatcher remained remarkably true to those she had set out to serve. They repaid her loyalty, making her the longest-serving British Prime Minister since the 1820s. There’s a lesson there, too.
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