Margaret Thatcher enjoyed being who she was. She did not think of this inner bounce as a gift of fortune but as a virtue, as obligatory self-respect. She was a patriot and a Tory in that way. The party was her milieu—the people whose self-respect resembled her own and supported it. The country, too, was an inference from self-confidence. “One was patriot,” you could hear her saying, “because it is shambolic not to be—and contemptible.” In this instinct and opinion there was some wisdom, and also a British strength once so common as to be unremarkable. But in 1979, when she became prime minister, it was receding in British society, and especially at the top.
Oddly enough, her chief rival as prime minister, her nemesis, had exactly the same opinion and strength. Michael Heseltine was the sort of buccaneering, self-made toff that she most admired in the Tory world. He was the sort of man she would have wanted to be if she had been a man. Margaret Thatcher was a woman who lacked Heseltine’s knowledge of the world. Both had energy and quick, unoriginal minds, but Heseltine made his own money. He did not see Britain as a mere extension of the Tory vote. He embraced both the center and the right as an opportunist who embraced anything that was profitable and effective. Heseltine was as brash as Thatcher, but he grew more strategic and potentially more radical. He could have made a better prime minister, but she had taken his space. He knew this, and it appalled him. He broke her in 1990.
To call Thatcher ideological is inaccurate, but she liked her opinions and liked ideas the more she grew in experience. All the important decisions about Britain’s place in the world, in the Cold War, and in Europe had been taken before she was prime minister, and she did not change or challenge them. She preferred to be flattered by Americans than to be scolded by Commonwealth lefties. Most British politicians are like that—even if a few pretend not to be. Politicians of precisely her generation found that dropping the British Commonwealth came easily. The talk of keeping Britain “great”’ was standard political patter before, during, and after her time. It contains not even the faintest echo of the “white man’s burden”; indeed, it is difficult to say what it means.
The economy of the Western world changed in 1973. The United States, needing inflation as an answer to debt, undermined the attempt of the oil majors to maintain their cartel against OPEC states. The price of oil quintupled, and rapid inflation followed. Thatcher took over her party in 1975. Her chief impact came through understanding that inflation was a choice, not a fact. But it is doubtful if she understood clearly what the economies of the West would have been like if America’s Vietnam debt had been paid off at constant prices while oil was paid for by equivalent transfers of real wealth to the Middle East. In any case, OPEC and U.S. policy was beyond her reach. Like most British politicians, she stuck with a pre-existing concern, which was trade-union power: Industrial managers must recover the freedom to manage. In short, she wanted to “print” less money and change labor law. It is what the previous three governments, even Labour governments, had been trying to do.
In a remarkably short time her clear program succeeded. The changes in labor law succeeded because they were cautious, incremental, well designed, and widely supported. Real expertise was applied to the problem of revising the legal immunities of trade unions, immunities that had troubled the center ground ever since 1905. Although she was prime minister, it is doubtful whether her role was special or decisive. She took advice.
Not printing money was a different matter. This was something she believed she understood. It was something she thought about and liked to discuss with experts. Unfortunately, she became overexcited by certainty. Inflation in Britain surged back upward when she came into office and dumped overboard Labour’s wobbly, half-effective prices and incomes policy. She hit back with high interest rates that rose to a peak of 17 percent. New oil revenues pushed sterling far too high. The Tory economists who had coached her in opposition were suddenly horror-struck. (One came to Cambridge for the most dramatic seminar I shall ever attend. Clutching his head, he confessed, “She’s out of control.”) In the end a foreign professor, known for holding opinions to the right of Genghis Khan, was brought into No. 10 Downing Street to persuade her that the proposition “where 10 percent is good 20 percent must be better” was a fallacy.
Inflation was brought down, and this time it stayed down. Politicians who had wrung their hands in despair about inflation saw that something special had happened. They were impressed. Yet she was very fortunate. The high nominal price of oil had been knocked down in real value by all the wicked inflation that had taken place. The dragon had been slain after its good work had been done. (The dragon may yet fly again before today’s global credit crisis is all over, although the total impoverishment of the masses is, it seems, a possible alternative.) Thatcher had fought a winnable battle at the right time.
What the Tory Party liked most, and now misses, is her luck. But the country, in the parts she did not know and her nearsighted patriotism did not register, paid a horrible price. At 17 percent it is more than dead wood that catches fire: Even world-class companies can go under. The North of England, Scotland, and Wales paid the butcher’s bill. These places have never forgiven her. Today, Scotland returns only one Tory MP to Parliament, and the cities of the North are a wasteland for the Tories even in places where they could often do well before Margaret Thatcher. From 1983 the economy boomed as it never had since 1945, but it was the South that prospered.
The decline of the British rust belt was inevitable, but the pace and the collateral damage was not. No advanced economy has seen its like. The North was hit too hard for any prospect of early recuperation. It was Thatcher’s fate to be too much praised for success and too much blamed for the harm that came along. Heseltine might have managed things differently while sounding very similar. But he, too, would have taken on the National Union of Coal Miners in 1984. It was generally known that the coalfields were being wound down slowly. The idea that the miners, demanding no pit closures, could win in 1984, against a prepared and determined government, was absurd. But it made sense to save public money by accepting a qualified victory and offering some crumbs of compromise as a settlement. Heseltine, in the version I am inventing here, might just possibly have seen this. Instead, the British deep-mine coalfield was closed down with vindictive fury once victory was obtained. The social cost was very great.
The coal miners of England, Scotland, and Wales were the sinews of the labor movement, and at the heart of its Britishness. The Yorkshire strike was solid for nearly 12 months; in South Wales the strike was, until the last day, a display of flawless social discipline that beggars belief. Other Tories—the gentlemen with imaginations—rather liked the coal miners. They understood the “socialism” of the coalfields correctly as tribal talk firmly locked into British patriotism—as easy to tolerate as the goats that serve as mascots in the regiments of the British army. Margaret Thatcher, however, came from a class that resented all trade unions at the personal level. Unions had unfair privileges that allowed them to escape the consequences of their actions—and they bullied both struggling employers and a patient public. It was a pleasure to throw a ferocious punch at them. The malice was visible. On the miners’ strike, British opinion was dangerously split—33 percent for the miners and 40 percent against.
Time acts upon policymaking and upon the objects of policy in different ways: The tempos are not the same. Even serious-minded reformers must live at the pace of political triviality while society plods on and on counting years as minutes. But war is different. In war almost all decisions are fast because events are faster. War overwhelms the hesitant and punishes blunderers. At war in 1982—organized and fought in “real time”—Thatcher was very good. As a decisionmaker, this tempo suited her best. Enoch Powell had electrified her in the House. (“In the next week or two this House, the nation and the Right Honourable Lady herself, will learn of what metal she is made.”) She was not just tough enough: She was fast enough. She made reasonable and prompt decisions, had a good grip of “mission command,” and she guessed correctly where she could trust colleagues and experts to get on with their jobs. She was lucky at war, but in part because she made it possible for herself to be lucky.
It was a pity that the miners’ strike came after the Falklands War and not before. Two years earlier, she would have been more pragmatic; by 1984 she was ready for another fight. But she had grown preposterous: She had become an act, a performance, into which she had been carried by fortune and flattery. She was more than just comfortable in her skin; she enjoyed her stereotype beyond the limits of taste and sense. Her naive self-importance, once a half-hidden strength, was now brazen and pointless; her lack of self-awareness was disappointing and, eventually, damaging. (In this she resembled the preposterous Edward Heath, the man she had deposed as Tory leader, a politician who stayed on and on as a Commons MP just to rain on her parades and prophesy failure.) A more sane and skeptical leader would not have allowed herself to be coddled and conned by silly-clever underlings into supporting the ludicrously dangerous poll tax (“community charge”). She was duped by her acolytes before she was despatched by her enemies.
After the war, the strike, and a dramatic assassination attempt by the IRA, Margaret Thatcher was the monarch of her party. She began the great deregulation of high finance, though it is unlikely that she foresaw that all the British merchant banks would soon be swallowed up by foreign competitors, let alone the future trade in complex derivatives. She privatized industries that could be sold off conveniently, and these, too, were bought up from abroad. Few strong performers emerged from the process, and the British today pay too much for utilities because competition has been nominal, and market regulation was poor or could not be implemented. Some of her best advisors—like Sir John Hoskyns in 1982—had retreated from her, and the acolytes took over.
As Tory monarch, she dwindled. In 1986 she accepted the Single European Act—in the name of that perennial false lure “free trade.” This transferred more power to Brussels than anything before or since and gave pro-Europeans like David Cameron something “Thatcherite” to cling to. In retirement she would complain that she had been deceived by the Foreign Office. It was a poor excuse, but it is quite plausible. Errors accumulated as she frittered away her energy on privatization trivia. She meddled with the health service to no particular effect, left the radical teacher-training colleges intact, and saw welfare dependency expand dangerously. Her tax cuts were paid for by short-lived North Sea oil revenues, which have dried up. The standard difficulties of a right-wing reformer in a liberal culture baffled her as much as anyone else.
She permitted ministers she might have dismissed (and replaced with better ones) to develop strategic commitments. She had quarreled with Norman Tebbit, the best Tory politician available and unrivaled as an expositor of right-wing views. (He was gravely injured by the bomb that did not kill her.) As an English Catherine the Great she needed at least one Potemkin and had none. She permitted the treasury to put sterling into lockstep with the German mark and grasped too late what was going on. Eventually, she was fighting hard against the European and monetary policies of her own government, policies that she might have strangled at birth.
Thatcher was often good at leadership but mostly poor at making or finding a “followership.” After 1982 she lacked talented support in Downing Street. She was difficult, often wrong about people, too isolated from top-quality advice, and handicapped toward the end by the prospect of losing—for the first time—a general election. She needed the energy, and sharp teamwork, of her younger days to cut her way out of a closing trap. In 1988 Roy Jenkins, the leading European-loyalist of his time, made a speech in Brussels warning that only Thatcher would have the courage and authority to keep Britain out of monetary union.
In 1982 she defeated a tinpot Argentine dictator who could, by withdrawing from the Falkland Islands on U.N. terms, have humiliated her but threw the chance away. In choosing to fight, she was enabled and buoyed up by the first sea lord, Admiral Leach, whose patriotism and focus were the equal of hers. The Navy won the war, and the Corps of Royal Marines, scheduled for abolition, survived. In 1984 the whole Tory Party willed her to defeat a union hothead who could not even unite his own members. These contests were dramatic but not politically difficult. But in 1988-90 she was no longer surrounded with genuine encouragement and loyal support. She was frogmarched by senior colleagues into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).
She now faced a far more formidable combination of opponents: in Europe, Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, Giulio Andreotti, and Helmut Kohl. In Britain, the foreign secretary was poised to resign, and Heseltine was willing to wield the knife even at the cost of his life’s ambition. Thatcher, though flustered, was still big enough to obstruct the onward march of Europe, and they all wanted to be rid of her. Monarch of a frightened party, she was ambushed and out of her league as a politician. She lacked the political skills and political allies to fight back. She even lacked a big idea. Only afterward did she sense that a Damascene conversion away from Europe had been required. That incomplete conversion is her political legacy.
Margaret Thatcher leaves behind a weakened union with Scotland and a weakened Conservative Party that has not obtained a parliamentary majority for the last 20 years. But the pro-European project collapsed in 1992 when the government was humiliated by the foreign-exchange market and Britain left the ERM; and the Tory Party’s self-respect crumbled when the parliamentary whips forced through the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and again in 1993. Was the party weakened by her record or by the dogmatism and folly of her rivals? The question still divides Tories. But the party outside Parliament never forgave the regicides, who have remained cursed ever since. If the anti-Thatcher plotters had made good their success against her, Britain would today be counting the cost in euros.
She blotted out Heseltine’s potential, and he was a better manager, strategist, and tough. But she had her instincts—key to seizing the Tory leadership in 1975 and still vivid when she lost it 15 years later—instincts that delighted her followers and drew reluctant respect from critics. Thatcher had instincts like no one else, like Cyrano de Bergerac had panache.