For many people of my generation–born in the 1960s and who really came of age politically during the 1980s–the two largest figures in our political imagination were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. President Reagan died in 2004, and early this morning Prime Minister Thatcher passed away at the age of 87.
I vividly recall spending time with Mrs. Thatcher at a small gathering in Bath, England in the early 1990s, at a conference hosted by National Review. She was spectacular, both in informal conversations and in her speech. You couldn’t spend five minutes with Mrs. Thatcher without knowing that this was a person of tremendous depth, intelligence and convictions. And considerable charm, too.
There are many things one could say in tribute of Thatcher, but I want to focus on simply two. The first was her ability to challenge and re-shape the assumptions of the people whom she was elected to lead.
In the 1970s, Great Britain was “the sick man of Europe,” crippled by powerful labor unions and creeping socialism. What Thatcher did was to directly challenge the philosophy of socialism, which she fiercely attacked. Her speeches, both before she became prime minister and afterward, were models of discourse. They were not merely words strung together or boilerplate phrases; she marshaled powerful arguments on behalf of democratic capitalism and liberty. And she had the courage and skill to implement those policies over great opposition, and with great successes. (She was prime minister for 11 and a half years.) Over time she altered the outlook of the British people, which is quite a rare and impressive political achievement. She was, to use a metaphor, more of a thermostat than she was a thermometer. She changed the political and philosophical climate of her nation, in ways that few others ever have.
The second testimony to Mrs. Thatcher is the way she influenced the opposition party. 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.
Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of a nation that was demoralized and on the decline. She lifted Great Britain from its knees and returned it to greatness. She was one of the 20th century’s most consequential leaders, a woman of impressive virtues, and one of America’s greatest friends and allies. She will be terribly missed and never forgotten. Margaret Thatcher belongs to the ages.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.