The release this week of a movie entitled The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep as the mature Margaret Thatcher, has brought renewed attention to the political career of one of Britain’s most famous Prime Ministers. Although the movie is in bad taste, focusing attention for money-grabbing reasons on Margaret Thatcher’s old-age dementia while she is still alive, nevertheless the movie is reawakening a hostility across much of Britain to the person most responsible for Britons’ current relative-economic well being and individual liberty.
‘Curiouser and curiouser’ said Alice.
Margaret Thatcher rose to Britain’s highest office in dramatic fashion. First, she led the so-called ‘peasants’ revolt’ against the Tory aristocracy and the inept left-leaning leadership of the Conservative Party under former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Then she re-energized her party and moved it away from socialism towards a pro-capitalist tilt, while the trade unions ruled Britain and forced Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan to ‘prostrate myself before you’. Finally, she rode into office in 1979 following a break-down into socialist anarchy when, in a winter of discontent, militant trade unionists paralyzed the British economy and refused to allow their members even to bury the dead.
Thatcher did not waste her 11 continuous years in office as Prime Minister . She dedicated herself to rolling back the state and to establishing a sound basis for long-term economic growth in a country that had become the laughing-stock of Europe. No one ever again would jeer about the British Disease from across the English Channel. Instead, they would be running hard to keep up with the Iron Lady’s flowing petticoats.
So what did Thatcher actually achieve? She moved the British economy onto a path that would have led to a balanced budget by 1992, had she not been prematurely ejected from office. She lowered top rates of income tax from 95 per cent to less than 50 per cent. She denationalized the heartland of the British economy. She sold off council houses as a means of establishing a secure foundation for a property-owning democracy. She thrashed Argentina when that country’s military junta attempted to seize the Falklands and South Georgia. She worked with President Ronald Reagan to bring down the evil empire of the USSR. Most important of all, she broke the back of trade union power both through legislation and through defeating the National Union of Mineworkers in a bitter 1984-85 war of attrition.
So why is Margaret Thatcher now so much despised by Britons who she nourished with individual liberty and economic prosperity? Perhaps because she was a woman who showed men what it means to have steel in one’s backbone. Perhaps because she demonstrated just how stupid the electoral majority had been in endorsing mediocrity throughout the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps because she created an environment where one succeeds or fails on the basis of hard-work and ability, not on inheritance, patronage, and a social security blanket from the cradle to the grave.
Whatever the reason for such visceral hatred, I write to say that it is entirely misplaced. If human beings are to flourish, they must do so as individuals not as collectivists. And when they fail to flourish they remain dependent on the state. Because of those dreadful residuals too many Britons still hark back to the era when they had no reason to plan or to think, but simply could rely on government to ease them on their way through life. Such reliance detroys the human spirit, even the meaning of life itself.
Hail to Margaret Thatcher. Let me hear it for the Iron Lady!