Insights into the Life and Successes of Margaret Thatcher

Via Ben Domenech’s The Transom daily newsletter, excerpts from:

The Invincible Mrs. Thatcher

Not long after she resigned as prime minister, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher began to write her memoirs. I met her at a dinner party and asked her what she would call them. The famous blue eyes flashed at me: “Undefeated!” she declared.

This expressed a sober arithmetical fact. Uniquely at that time in British politics, Margaret Thatcher had won three general elections in a row as party leader and had never lost any. Before she had the chance to contest her fourth, she was deposed by members of Parliament from her own party in a coup. Yet, even in that contest, the pure numbers were on her side. In 1990, when the Conservative Party staged a challenge to her leadership, she won more legislators’ votes than her main rival, but not enough to avoid a second ballot. Her Cabinet colleagues convinced her that she would be humiliated in the runoff, and she resigned.

Perhaps more important still, she won the big arguments. She argued that inflation was a disease of money that could be cured by controlling the growth of the money supply alone, without suppressing incomes. During her premiership, inflation fell from a high of 27 percent in 1975 to 2.5 percent by 1986. She believed that the political power of British labor unions had strangled enterprise and placed the country at the mercy of unelected barons. When she removed the legal immunities that protected unions from the financial consequences of their actions and overcame a yearlong strike organized by the hard-left leadership of the coal miners’ union, the employee days lost to strikes each year fell from 29.5 million in 1979 to 1.9 million in 1986. She said that taxes were too high and brought the top rate down from 98 percent to 40 percent. She declared that the state should not be running British business and led the world in “privatization”—a word she found ugly but a concept she loved—selling off airlines, airports, utilities, and phone and oil companies to the private sector. In every case, her critics said that it could not be done. Yet, for better and for worse, she did it.

Of her mother, Beatrice, Margaret Thatcher said, “Oh, Mother. Mother was marvelous—she helped Father.”

“I owe nothing to women’s lib,” she said in an interview in 1982, and she never, in theory, rejected the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Indeed, she made great play with the notion that the housewife knows best. Seeking to paint her as a crude homebody, her opponents in the Tory leadership contest of 1975 played up the story, based on an interview that she had given, that she hoarded goods in her larder against the possibility (quite real at that time) of shortages. Mrs. Thatcher had the sense to be unashamed, knowing that many women voters would sympathize, and invited reporters to come and have a look at her larder. In the general-election campaign of 1979, which brought her to power for the first time, she explained that “any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running the country.” In every election campaign, she would charge into a supermarket, grab a shopping cart, and start off down the aisles at a fearful pace, chased by cameras as she piled goods—almost always British goods—into the basket.

The very name “Mrs. Thatcher” showed her ease with the traditional role. Not for her the ambiguous nomenclature of Hillary Rodham Clinton or Tony Blair’s wife, who is sometimes known as Cherie Booth and sometimes Cherie Blair. Britain’s most recognizable and individual peacetime prime minister was also the first to be known by someone else’s name.

Her submissiveness toward him was traditionalist, too. During the Falklands War, he told me, she was terribly upset by the loss of British servicemen’s lives, particularly by the sinking of the Sheffield, the first British ship to be hit. Denis sat on the end of their bed as she wept. “I said, ‘That is what war is like, love. It is bloody. I know. I’ve been in one.’ ” She relied on his manly comfort.

When Margaret Thatcher resigned, the first thing she asked of the Queen was that Denis, not she, be given an honor. He was made a baronet, a virtually extinct hereditary title, which permitted him to be called Sir Denis and, when he died in 2003, for their son to become Sir Mark. Thus the “Lady” in Margaret Thatcher’s name, like the “Mrs.,” comes from Denis. It was nearly three more years before she was made Baroness Thatcher in her own right.

Handshake Like a Wrestler’s

My own wife tells me that the handshake Mrs. Thatcher extended to women was like a wrestling move: she would grab her opponent and pull her as hard as she could out of the way to get on to the man next to her.

She liked courtliness and found it in Reagan. The manners did not work quite as well with his successor, George H. W. Bush. According to her most important foreign-policy aide, Charles Powell, Bush’s leisure style was too much that of a “man’s man. Jeans and cowboy boots and beer out of a can. She’d be in high heels.”

She was always on the lookout for “great men” and was wont to say that “when a big man has a big idea I never like to stand in his way.” This helps to explain why she never exhibited any of the anti-Semitism that used to exist in some Tory circles. She believed that Jews had more than the common share of great men and admired them for it. [Scott: See Jewish Nobel Laureates: 11590% More Than Population Statistics Might Expect]

Because of Margaret Thatcher’s love of manliness, many observers made the mistake of thinking of her as a man in skirts. Even Ronald Reagan, so astute in his dealings with people, once described Mrs. Thatcher as “the best man in England.” That was wrong. In her view, she was the best woman in England, and, for all her love of men, she regarded the female sex as superior. “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man,” she announced in a speech in 1982. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

It was a constant source of pleasure to her that she was alone among men, and powerful men at that. For the Tories, of all people, to have chosen a woman leader more than 35 years ago was absolutely astonishing, and Margaret Thatcher knew how to exploit it. She knew, first of all, that some of her colleagues were frightened of women and inhibited about arguing with them. … In her later years she came to love adulation, but she never had the male’s craving for approval from his mates: she didn’t have any mates. That made her strong.

For any leader of the opposition, as Margaret Thatcher was during her first four years as party leader, public recognition is a problem. Not for the first woman leader in British history. You didn’t even have to name her—you just had to say “she” and everyone knew whom you meant.

Olivier arranged for her to have lessons with the speech coach at the National Theatre, and soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.

The Soviets, her implacable foes, gave Mrs. Thatcher the big break her image needed. In 1976, three years before she became prime minister, the Red Army newspaper Red Star reported on a tough speech she had made about the weakness of NATO’s defenses and described her as the Iron Lady. With a bit of “little woman” playfulness, she seized the moment: “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. A Cold War warrior, an Amazon philistine, even a Peking plotter. Well, am I any of these things …? Yes—if that’s how they wish to interpret my defence of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.” The idea of the Iron Lady caught fire and, as the years passed, spread across the whole world.

The most potent symbol of her strength—like the orb and scepter of the Queen—were her handbags. These sturdy, expensive, usually black appendages were with her at all times, and used to contain objects—a yellowing copy of the policy document that founded Britain’s welfare state, for example, or some wise words by Abraham Lincoln—which she would produce like rabbits out of a hat and wave in front of television interviewers. … So the State Department bought her a handbag, filled it with her best quotes, and brought it along to the lunch. Shultz stood up. “Far be it from me to look into a lady’s handbag,” he said, but then he dipped in and pulled out her best lines to read to the assembled company. He presented her with “the Grand Order of the Handbag,” and she left glowing.

Years later, when she was out of office, one of her bags sold at a charity auction for $150,000.

As soon as she took office as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher began to fight. Out went the 1945 economic consensus. The standard and top rates of income tax were cut, exchange controls were abolished, the money supply was brought under fierce constraint, unemployment was allowed to rise. … When Iranian terrorists seized hostages in the Iranian Embassy in London, Mrs. Thatcher sent in Britain’s elite Special Air Service (S.A.S.). They brought all but one of the remaining hostages out alive and all but one of the terrorists dead. “We never thought you’d let us do it,” one of the S.A.S. officers said to her afterward.

The Tory high noon—and the fruit of Thatcher’s policy of conflict—came the following year with the coal miners’ strike. In the previous Parliament, Battling Maggie, as the tabloid press liked to call her (though in real life no one dared abbreviate her Christian name to her face), had shirked a fight with the miners. … Thatcher had insisted on building up huge reserves of coal to endure a long strike. … Scargill made the mistake of calling a strike in March, when the weather gets warmer and there’s less demand for coal.

Three days short of a full year of dispute, the miners returned to work. Margaret Thatcher had finally beaten 40 years of union political power. The economic benefits were huge, and her prestige soared.

She and the German chancellor Helmut Kohl reacted allergically to each other. On one occasion in Salzburg, Kohl, desperate to escape a meeting in which he thought she was lecturing him, falsely pleaded an emergency and cut out early. Finding herself at a loose end, Mrs. Thatcher toured the city’s shops. To her surprise she spotted Kohl sitting in a café eating buns.

Kohl brought out a strong, simple, wartime prejudice. “You know what’s wrong with Helmut Kohl?” she once said, turning to me confidentially as if it were a secret. “He’s a German.”

The next morning, she took the hint and resigned, seeing the Queen before lunch to inform her. By one of the odd quirks of the British parliamentary timetable, it still fell to Margaret Thatcher to defend her administration that afternoon in a “no confidence” debate in the House of Commons. She was in top form, recounting her vision of a strong and free nation and what she had done to bring it back into being. When a veteran leftist interrupted, she slapped him down to general enthusiasm, then shouted, “I’m enjoying this!. With truly magnificent British hypocrisy, the Tories who had just assassinated her cheered and cheered.

By chance, her old friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan were staying in London shortly afterward, and she called on them in their hotel. “She was upset,” says Mrs. Reagan. “She wasn’t quiet. She was quite explicit about what she felt.” She felt betrayed.

One Response to “Insights into the Life and Successes of Margaret Thatcher”

  1. oneworldmaybenot Says:

    Thatcher is what you would call a real leader.

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