We all woke up in the United States this morning to the news that Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, died at age 87.
There’s not much I can add (Andrew Sparrow’s live blog at The Guardian is a good place to start) to what will certainly be a week’s worth of paeans to someone who was undoubtedly the most consequential British prime minister since Winston Churchill — and, serving fully 11 years from 1979 to 1990, the United Kingdom’s longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century.
As Peter Hennessy wrote in The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945, Thatcher was a ubiquitous presence rivaling Churchill or David Lloyd George:
Friends in the Health Service told me that by the mid 1980s, psychiatrists engaged in the early diagnosis of their more disturbed patients ceased asking them for their own names and birth dates and so on, and asked instead for the name of the prime minister. If patients failed to remember that, they knew they were properly sunk.
You’ll hear over the next 48 hours the extent to which Thatcher changed Great Britain, Europe and the world, but most immediately, it’s remarkable the extent to which she changed the Conservative Party. Her influence still lives on today in Tory prime minister David Cameron’s government in the same way that Ronald Reagan’s ghost hovers the Republican Party, even today, in the United States.
It’s not just that she was a woman in a party of old men — German chancellor Angela Merkel won’t likely go down in history in the same breath as Thatcher.
It’s not just that she came from a humble background in a party of aristocracy — her predecessor Edward Heath came from an even more humble background.
It’s that she in many ways was the first truly conservative prime minister of Great Britain, in that her free market fervor really represented a radical departure from the paternal ‘One Nation Tory’ stance of her predecessors. It’s easy today to forget just how truly broken the UK economy had become in the late 1970s under Labour — strikes, inflation, economic malaise, rubbish uncollected in the streets. But she inherited a Britain that had reached a post-war nadir, and that turned around in her time in office.
She so transformed British politics that Labour prime minister Tony Blair, when he came to power in the landslide 1997 election, was essentially a Thatcherite — he not only pulled the Labour Party (‘New Labour’) far from its trade union roots, but he arguably pulled it to the right of the Old Tories under Heath and Macmillan.
Even still, it’s amazing the extent to which party grandees — not just Heath, but former prime minister Harold Macmillan in particular — held a special disdain for her, and Hennessy provides in his book even more salacious details on Macmillan’s visit to advise Thatcher in 1982 in advance of her decision to send the British Navy to liberate the Falklands Islands from an Argentine occupation:
Macmillan did not care for Mrs. Thatcher or her style of government. Seven years earlier, shortly after she had become Leader of the Opposition, he told me, ‘You couldn’t imagine a woman as Prime Minister if we were a first-class power.’
On that April day in 1982, he shuffled in ‘doing his old man act,’ and gazed around the room he had come to know so well between 1957 and 1963. It was unusually empty. Mrs. Thatcher was due to see a group of her backbenchers that evening and space had been made ready. ‘Where’s all the furniture?’ said the old statesman to the new. ‘You’ve sold it all off, I suppose.’
With colleagues like those, it’s easy to see how Thatcher came to relish confrontation with not only the old-guard Tories, but Labour, and then an entire world full of adversaries from Jacques Delors to the Soviet leadership. While that confrontational attitude sometimes misfired, both at home (the unpopularity of the poll tax and her anti-European sentiment led Tories to pull the plug on her premiership) and abroad (her oddly Germanophobic opposition to Helmut Kohl’s reunification of West and East Germany), her 11-year tenure really did transform the United Kingdom and Europe:
The essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom—odd, since as a prim control freak, she was in some ways the embodiment of conservatism. She thought nations could become great only if individuals were set free. Her struggles had a theme: the right of individuals to run their own lives, as free as possible from the micromanagement of the state.
Here’s a great clip — from her last speech in the House of Commons as prime minister — that captures the essence of Thatcherism:
Photo credit to Denis Thorpe of The Guardian.