Mrs Thatcher—and it seems more appropriate on her death to forget her title and refer to her by the name she wore during her years of power—was a blend of two very different personalities. She was both a towering world-historical figure, like Bismarck, and an ordinary middle-class English housewife like Mrs Miniver. She took bold and difficult strategic decisions, such as sinking the Belgrano in the Falklands War, but she also surprised world leaders by plumping up cushions, opening windows, and generally seeing personally to their comfort. She was great but she was not grand.
My first encounter with her was, I thought, a disaster. As a parliamentary correspondent in the 1970s I had a stand-up row with her over the worth of educational vouchers, which I supported and she opposed. What neither I nor my left-wing colleagues (who were mightily amused by my discomfiture) realised was that Mrs Thatcher liked people who stood up to her. She relished argument and debate. She may have lacked a sense of humour, but she had wit and a love of rhetorical combat. By the time she became prime minister, she had been worsted many times herself in debate by Labour’s Jim Callaghan. As with all her actions, however, she gritted away until she learned how to win. And in office she became the mistress of Prime Minister’s Question Time.
Meanwhile our row led her to invite me to join her staff in Downing Street in the mid-1980s. There I found that almost everyone who worked for her loved her. That was not true of all her ministers in other departments, however. And there was a reason. Mrs Thatcher reversed the usual etiquette of political praise. She kicked up and she kissed down. The ladies who served tea, the doormen, her beloved detectives could do no wrong; her ministers and senior civil servants must have sometimes felt they could do no right. An example of this was when a waitress at Chequers stumbled and poured soup into the lap of the Foreign Secretary. Mrs Thatcher jumped up and comforted the waitress!
There was method in this. She felt that the higher up you were, the greater your obligation to give the British taxpayer full value for his money. This was a logic she applied to herself. If you want to understand why Mrs Thatcher was so much more successful than, say, Tony Blair in pushing through her great reforming agenda, the explanation is this: Both had good ideas and both presented them to the British people—but she had administrative stamina. She pushed her program through the committees and corridors of power with tireless effort. As a result her ideas became reforms rather than merely press releases.
Mrs Thatcher was also signally lacking in prejudice. She recruited those people who seemed to her to be most intellectually capable and adventurous. There were no complaints that her Downing Street was the haunt of “posh” people or establishment grey men. Rather the reverse. She was occasionally attacked for listening to eccentrics and wild cards and, well, non-traditional Conservatives. Harold Macmillan once delivered himself of a mildly anti-Semitic joke on those lines: “My Cabinet was full of Old Etonians; her Cabinet is full of Old Estonians.” But the result was that she got advice and ideas from outside the regular channels and accordingly she was often better informed and bolder than those overly reliant on the departmental view.
Her relationships with foreign statesmen were similar in their creative sympathy across gulfs of ideology. She was very fond of President Mitterrand (who returned the compliment in a barbed way, describing her as possessing “the mouth of Monroe and the eyes of Caligula”) and obtained his support in the Falklands War. But her two most rewarding relationships were with Reagan and Gorbachev—respectively the leaders of the camps of liberty and socialism—whom she introduced to each other, warmly recommending both, in a step that led directly to the peaceful end of the Cold War. Gorbachev she liked because—well, because she liked arguing with him. Their discussions were, by all accounts, great displays of intellectual combat.
Mrs Thatcher and Reagan were a natural and successful partnership, but did not always appear so. One acute and well-placed observer, Sir Percy Cradock, who served as Mrs Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser in Downing Street, pointed to some very sharp differences between them in the following contrast: “the bossy intrusive Englishwoman, lecturing and hectoring, hyperactive, obsessively concerned with detail” and “the lazy, sunny Irish ex-actor, his mind operating mainly in the instinctive mode, happy to delegate and over-delegate, hazy about most of his briefs, but with certain stubbornly held principles, a natural warmth, and an extraordinary ability to communicate with his constituents”.
That sounds like criticism. And recent Reagan scholarship suggests that the president was somewhat less lazy and delegation-happy than he liked people to think. But Sir Percy was an admirer of the partnership as well as one of its close advisers. As he went on to say, these different personalities complemented each other. They were not oil and water but oil and vinegar—no prizes for guessing who was which—and not entirely by accident. Both were determined to make the partnership work. Both shared the same essential philosophy. And both were prepared to back each other up in public even when they differed in private—almost all of the time at any rate.
Mrs Thatcher’s three election victories entrenched that philosophy and her economic and labour reforms as the new consensus of British politics. Mrs Thatcher’s British economy, like Reagan’s revived US economy, was characterised by change, profitability, growth, the better allocation of resources, including labour, and the emergence of new industries, indeed of an entirely new economy, based on the information revolution. That transformation did not stop at the Atlantic’s edge. Mrs Thatcher also changed the world economy by virtue of the demonstration effects of Thatcherism. It provided the world with successful models of free and deregulated economies. And if tax cuts were America’s principal intellectual export, privatisation was Britain’s. Of the two, privatisation was the more important globally since the Third World and post-communist economies were held back by a vast number of inefficient state industries.
Once the command economies of the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989, revealing the extraordinary bankruptcy of state planning, it was the Thatcher model that the new democracies mainly sought to emulate.
Second, the revolution of Thatcherism was also a moral revolution. All the apparently economic changes arose from a revival of what Shirley Robin Letwin, the distinguished Anglo-American political theorist, called the “vigorous virtues”. These are such qualities as self-reliance, diligence, thrift, trustworthiness and initiative that enable someone who exhibits them to live and work independently in society. Though they are not the only virtues—compassion might be called one of the “softer virtues”—they are essential to the success of a free economy and a civil society, both of which rely on dispersed initiative and self-reliant citizens.
And as Mrs Thatcher used to point out, the softer virtues such as compassion cannot be exerted by people who lack the vigorous virtues of self-reliance and thrift. Her favorite saying from John Wesley was, “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” And in her response to criticism from Anglican bishops she argued that the Good Samaritan could have given very little help to the Jew if he had had nothing in his purse.
The reliance of charity upon the vigorous virtues may not be a theological novelty, but it is an important social insight. This moral victory over the Left’s collectivism was one of the things that caused her to be most hated—but not the last thing.
Her third achievement was perhaps the most surprising. Mrs Thatcher always seemed a very practical person rather than a visionary. Yet she was a visionary precisely because she was practical—and she showed it most clearly in a matter where most statesmen disagreed with her. She fell from power, indeed, partly because she opposed the euro and its earlier form, the ERM, and the idea of federal European government in general. Her opposition was rooted in highly practical economics: she said that a one-size-fits-all European currency would never suit the twenty-seven nations of the European Union.
She proved to be correct almost immediately. Only two years after her warnings, Britain was forced out of the ERM after suffering two years of needless recession. At once the British economy began to recover and, indeed, to flourish for another decade outside the euro. Today, when Europe is riven by a long-running crisis over the single currency, with unemployment levels running at 25 per cent and more in southern Europe, she looks even more prescient. If Britain and Europe had followed her advice in 1990 and later, they would all be more prosperous and friendly today.
Mrs Thatcher was a great statesman. What future generations may appreciate more, however, was that she was a visionary social and geopolitical thinker too. RIP.
John O’Sullivan is a former political adviser and speechwriter to Margaret Thatcher and the author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (2006).