by Daniel Hannan * 11/25/2011
To understand the magnitude of Margaret Thatcher’s achievement, you have to recall the calamity that preceded it. It is difficult, these days, to convey the unremitting awfulness of 1970s Britain: the pessimism, the rancour, the double-digit inflation, the power cuts, the three-day working week, the regulation of prices and incomes, the IMF bailout.
It felt as if we were finished as a country. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, we had been outperformed by every European economy. “Britain is a tragedy, it has sunk to borrowing, begging, stealing until North Sea oil comes in,” said Henry Kissinger. The Wall Street Journal was blunter: “Goodbye, Great Britain: it was nice knowing you”.
No one could have guessed that a revival was at hand. Margaret Thatcher had become leader of the Conservative Party almost by accident. She had been in the Cabinet only briefly, and remained little known and little trusted. Few commentators saw past the novelty of having a female party leader.
As leader of the opposition, she gave little hint of what was to come. Her first few months in office, too, were quiet enough. The government backed down in the face of a miners’ strike (while stockpiling coal so as to be ready for the next one). The traditionalists on the party left dominated Cabinet. Then, to the disbelieving horror of almost every academic economist, Margaret Thatcher moved. She deregulated financial services, sold off loss-making industries and allowed tenants to buy their homes from local councils.
The impact was immediate. Inflation fell, strikes stopped, the latent enterprise of a free people was awakened. Having lagged behind for a generation, Britain outgrew every European country in the 1980s except Spain (which was bouncing back from an even lower place). As revenues flowed in, taxes were cut and debt was repaid.
In the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher showed the world that a great country doesn’t retreat forever. And, by ending the wretched policy of one-sided détente that had allowed the Soviets to march into Europe, Korea and Afghanistan, she and Ronald Reagan set in train the events that would free hundreds of millions of people from what, in crude mathematical terms, must be reckoned the most murderous ideology humanity has known.
Margaret Thatcher never lost an election. She won three times, but was then ousted in a putsch by a group of Tory leftists who resented her opposition to European integration. Now, with the Euro zone in crisis and the EU losing all legitimacy, she has been vindicated on that issue, too.
She changed British politics utterly and benignly, refashioning not only her own party, but Labour, too. Tony Blair was as much her creature as any Conservative, for he understood that his party would never win until it had come to terms with her legacy.
Plenty of leftists resent her success. They cannot forgive the fact that she rescued a country that they had dishonoured and impoverished, that she inherited a Britain that was sclerotic, indebted and declining and left it proud, wealthy and free and that she never lost an election to them. Their rage, in truth, can never be assuaged of. It is the rage of Caliban.
Other prime ministers have mighty deeds to their names: Pitt and Peel, Salisbury and Churchill. Margaret Thatcher was unique, though, in taking over a country in what looked like irretrievable decline, and brought it back to prosperity and liberty. Never mind being the first woman prime minister; she is the greatest prime minister my country has known.
Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.