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May 04, 2009

Thirty years on

If the name Margaret Thatcher doesn't ring a bell for you, here's a refresher from "Publius":

A Spitting Image skit showed the PM at dinner with her cabinet. "What will you be having?" asks the waitress. "Steak," replies Thatcher. "What about the vegetables?" asks the waitress. "They'll have steak as well." Her authoritarian style, the modus of a revolutionary, won her enemies. Micheal Heseltine, a leading member of cabinet, resigned over her decision to block the purchase of a UK defense company by an Italian firm, she preferring — along with the management — sale to an American firm. The real reason was more likely personal pique.

Thatcher was never loved by her party, or the electorate. They backed her because they thought she was correct in her basic vision, and a strong enough figure to rule a nation in crisis and decline. It would be over policy that she fell. In the country at large it was the Poll Tax, a flat head tax levied on all adults, provoked a furious backlash. The Poll Tax was associated for centuries in Britain with tyrannical government. Since it was the same flat amount regardless of income, it was also seen as regressive. Thatcher liked it because it would be less distortionary than conventional taxes. In the party Europe caught her. Howe, the loyal Chancellor of the early years, resigned in the fall of 1990. Thatcher was afraid that Brussels was planning a European federation, not a free trade deal in the spirit of the Treaty of Rome. The British pound would be submerged in a new European currency. No, No, No said Thatcher. It was too late. The party and country abandoned her. A leadership contest was forced, with Thatcher failing to win on the first ballot. She resigned.

Mrs. Thatcher was not loved, nor did she want to be. She ruled in a way that few British prime ministers had ever done: her "Iron Lady" sobriquet was amazingly appropriate. She took on the powers of the unions and left them crumpled on the field of conflict. The Falklands War did much to restore the lustre of British arms (though the conflict was a far nearer-run thing than any of us realized at the time), and she intimidated the centralizing bureaucrats of Brussels. She was a far more confrontational leader than any since Churchill, yet managed to achieve much in her time in office.

I've mentioned before that my first trip back to Britain was in the depths of the "winter of discontent", and it was a dreadful experience. Nothing seemed to be going well, there were strikes and labour unrest in all sectors of the economy, and a pervading bitter sense that things would only continue to get worse. I'd been there less than a day and I was already counting down the time to when I could escape back to "the west".

My next visit was several years later and it was hard to believe that it was the same country. Mrs. Thatcher got little or no credit for the improvement, at least in the north, but to an outsider like me, the changes were very impressive indeed.

Posted by Nicholas at May 4, 2009 04:02 PM

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