My sadness upon hearing the news of Margaret Thatcher’s passing was occasioned not so much by her death, which had been preceded by years of sad decline, but by the fact that so much gained on her watch had been squandered by her successors. The manner of her removal from office back in 1990 should have been a warning that the long slide in Britain’s fortunes and status was about to resume. Given the impending collapse of the Euro and indeed, the whole European Federalist project, it is fascinating to reflect that the plot against her leadership was led by supporters of policies which have now proved so disastrously wrong.
Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation was the catalyst for her downfall and the portion of his resignation speech excoriating her leadership is often quoted. However, people seem less eager to recall that in this same speech, he gave as his reason for resignation his support for the euro against her opposition. It is Margaret Thatcher who can now be seen as the vindicated prophet. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely her erstwhile opponents in the Conservative Party will pause to reflect on their error even as they go through the motions of mourning her passing.
I believe decline is a matter of choice and is not driven by some impersonal law. Unfortunately, even the greatest individuals cannot entirely reverse a collective death wish. Even the greatest of leaders may arrive too late. I think of Winston Churchill in 1940. His great achievement was not to win World War II but to prevent Britain from losing during the first couple of years. He always depended on the eventual entry of the United States into the war. This greatest of Englishman had to pass the leadership baton to the new world. By 1945, he had been essentially sidelined by both Roosevelt and Stalin.
Margaret Thatcher’s lasting achievements lie in foreign policy and derive from her partnership with Ronald Reagan. But in the victory against the Evil Empire, she was the junior, albeit key partner from the old world. If Jimmy Carter had been re-elected President in 1980, she would probably have achieved very little, maybe even missing the American logistical support that was critical to the victory over Argentina in the Falklands War.
On the domestic front, much is made of her defeat of the trade unions, especially the Miners Union, led by the crypto communist, Arthur Scargill. She privatized, lowered taxes and sought to reduce the role of government. Back in the Seventies, just about anyone could name leading trade union figures. After all, with their privileged access to Downing Street during the Prime Ministership of Jim Callaghan, they virtually shared power with the elected government. Today, virtually nobody can name any trade union leader.
However, despite the claim that Margaret Thatcher “rescued” capitalism, I fear that the deep sclerosis of Britain was beyond her power to change. It is one thing to defeat trade union bullies and preside over the closure of obviously redundant industries and coal mines. It is quite another to reverse a welfare mentality and facilitate the rise of new entrepreneurs. To do this, she would have had to reverse much of the post-World War II policy consensus to which the ageing Churchill had surrendered by 1951.
Perhaps, by 1979, Margaret Thatcher was over 30 years too late. Clement Attlee and his well-meaning colleagues gained an overwhelming mandate to take Britain down the wrong path. The opportunity to inaugurate an enterprise culture after the war was permanently lost and even the greatest of leaders in the years that followed was powerless to change that culture.
Christopher Carr is a frequent contributor to Quadrant Online