“Vindication for the Iron Lady”
from the National Post:
Though it is probably happening too late to be overly gratifying to her, events are piling on to vindicate Margaret Thatcher completely in her reservations about British integration in Europe. Her response to the proposal to reduce Britain to a local government in a federal Europe was, memorably: “No, no, no, and never.” And her reward for her refusal to get on board what was then the thundering bandwagon of Eurofederalism, was to be sent packing by her own ungrateful party, though she was the only British political leader who had won three consecutive, full-term election majorities since before the First Reform Act expanded the electorate in 1832.
She was immensely popular with millions of Britons as a patriotic and courageous leader who took Britain off financial life support, saved it from strangulation by over-mighty, almost anarchistic unions, built a prosperous, home-owning democracy, threw the Argentinians out of the little corner of the British Empire they had wrongfully seized (the Falkland Islands), and played a starring role in winning the Cold War.
But Thatcher was virulently unpopular with some influential groups. In particular, there were those who resented a female leader. A swath of males, from the “luvvies” of the British entertainment and cultural scene to Euroleaders and left-leaning journalists, were so frightened in her presence, they seemed to fear being hand-bagged, or even having a hair-brush taken to them.
And as she liberalized the economy; imposed a free, secret ballot for labour strikes; lowered all taxes; privatized industry, housing, airports, almost everything except the National Health Service and the BBC; jolting economic growth resulted. Unfortunately, its most conspicuous exemplars included many successful entrepreneurs and financier types who offended British sensibilities by their garish and spivvy ostentation. The basis of Margaret Thatcher’s support was the Daily Telegraph-reading, gin and tonic-drinking, cricket-loving middle class, the backbone of the nation. But her enemies identified her with an infelicitous combination of Colonel Blimp fuddy-duddies and sticky-fingered, vulgar parvenus.
She had a somewhat hectoring manner in debates, and was notoriously impatient with what she considered pusillanimity from senior colleagues, sometimes calling cabinet members “blanc-manges,” or “suet puddings,” or even “spineless, boneless, men” (not necessarily inaccurately). Naturally less known was her exquisite courtesy and unaffected and egalitarian kindness to subordinates and strangers. It annoyed feminists that she was such a traditionalist, and weak men that she was a strong woman. But she triumphed by perseverance and courage; to the end, though a stirring speaker, she was nervous before a speech. She was a strong woman, but not at all a mannish one.
Because she was the first British female party leader, and the first in any important Atlantic country, and such a formidable character, Margaret Thatcher’s personality encroached upon her public record as the principal source of voter opinion about her. She is rivalled only by Churchill, Disraeli, Walpole, Pitt (the Elder), Wellington and Palmerston as the greatest personality among the 53 people who have been the British prime minister, but she has even fewer rivals as the greatest of them.
When she came to office in 1979, it was because only she had dared challenge the twice defeated former prime minister Edward Heath for the Conservative leadership, and because she dared to propose a sharp break from the bipartisan consensus for soft-left, high-tax, social democratic government. Britain was under daily audit from the IMF; currency controls prevented anyone from taking more than a few hundred pounds out of the country; and in the “winter of discontent” preceding the 1979 election, the garbage collectors, undertakers, transport workers and electric utility unions had all been on strike. The national newspapers never knew from one day to the next if they could publish the next day over the whims of the shop stewards; the railway and coal workers’ union leaders had shown their ability to bring the government to heel.
Thatcher cut personal income taxes, forced democracy on unions, and broke those that imposed illegal closed shops and secondary boycotts. British Airways went from horrifying losses as a state-owned concern to huge profits and general recognition as the world’s finest airline, once in private hands. British Steel followed a parallel path. Millions of slovenly tenants in tumble-down council houses became proud home-owners. Investment skyrocketed and London surged back to world financial leadership as Thatcher broke up the little log-rolling, back-scratching association of accepting houses (merchant banks) at the feet of the governor of the Bank of England.
When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands, Thatcher took great risks in sending two of the world’s largest liners (the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Canberra), crammed with soldiers, into a war zone, and sent practically the entire Royal Navy to take the islands back. (As an unintended bonus, she also restored democracy to Argentina.)
When her polls were low and traditional elements of her government and caucus were wobbling badly, she sacked a handful of ministers despite a slender parliamentary majority, and told her own party conference: “U-turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning.” She was instrumental in assuring the installation of intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of similar weapons, ignoring huge protests. She replied to calls for a nuclear-free Europe with her declared preference for a “war-free Europe,” and carried British opinion with her. With Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, and notwithstanding the wafflings of the French and opportunistic appeasers of the Kremlin such as Pierre Trudeau, she secured the intermediate missile agreement and the definitive wind-down of the Cold War.
No one who heard Margaret Thatcher’s spontaneous 1984 address to the Conservative Party conference at Brighton a few hours after the IRA brought much of her hotel down to rubble (almost killing her, and murdering several of her MPs), in which she foreswore any compromise with terrorists, will ever forget it.
As the privatization of state-owned industries proceeded, and unemployment temporarily rose to one million, then two, and finally three-million (before sharply declining), the London County Council, dominated by Marxists, was almost screaming for her blood. Mrs. Thatcher replied by abolishing the municipal government, put one of the greatest cities in the world under direct rule from the Home Office, sold the London government headquarters, County Hall, the largest building in the country, to Japanese developers to be turned into an aquarium, and London enjoyed better municipal administration.
She warned that one currency for all Europe, with a shared credit rating between all participating countries, would not work. She warned that fixed exchange rates would not work; that surrendering powers from Westminster to Brussels and Strasbourg wouldn’t work; that importing to Britain European industrial relations, tax rates and union-dominated labour markets wouldn’t work, and that subsuming British foreign policy, especially relations with the United States, into a European foreign policy wouldn’t work either. In all of this, and in most other policy matters, she has been proved correct.
When Margaret Thatcher spoke at my company’s annual dinner in Toronto in 1988, I introduced her as “one of the great leaders who has arisen in a thousand years of British history.” This was nothing but the truth, and I can add that she is also a convivial companion and a loyal friend, as gracious out of office as in; that rarest of statesmen, a world historic figure who is also the salt of the earth.
Comment: Whatever the best words that could be said regarding this gracious, polite, powerful quick thinking, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to describe her statesmanship, citizenship, and leadership abilities are never enough to do justice to this most remarkable woman of any century. What a conservative! Every session of Parliament was a pleasure to ‘observe’ when she was in control, and she did control that noisy pack with skill, brains, and elegance.