The death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the age of 87 lets us pause to reflect on the impact of one of the most powerful women of the 21st century. As with her ideological and political soul-mate, Ronald Reagan, her aggressive advocacy of both free-market economics and nationalist foreign policy established new parameters in her country’s politics. We need only look at the current Conservative government of David Cameron to realize that Margaret Thatcher is still around.
The first Labour majority government, 1945-51, achieved much in establishing the National Helath Service and consolidating the welfare state more generally. When the Conservatives returned to power in the 1950s, like Eisenhower in the United States, they largely accepted the welfare state and acted as its custodian. At the same time, Labour moved more to the center as a prelude to retaking power in the mid-1960s. The result was a centrist, moderate party system up until the rise of Thatcher in the late 1970s.
Thatcher first became Prime Minister in 1979, and served for more than 11 years, the longest tenure of any British Prime Minister of the 20th century. Primarily focused at first on shrinking and weakening the welfare state, at great political risk, she was thrown an unexpected life-preserver by the right-wing junta of Argentina in 1983, when they sought to enhance their own domestic standing by invading the Falkland Islands.
The British had taken over the islands (the Malvinas to the Argentines) in the 1830s over the objections of a weak Argentine Republic. Counting on Britain to acknowledge its decrepitude and its incapacity to defend the remote outpost, the Argentine generals grossly miscalculated. Thatcher declared that the invasion would not stand, and mobilized the remnants of the Royal Navy. She even requisitioned the Queen Elizabeth II as a troop ship. It took a few weeks to get the task force to that remote archipelago, but once it was there, the British made short work of Argentine resistance (though suffering some significant losses themselves).
The paradoxical results were several. Thatcher cemented her own public support and easily won a reelection that had been in doubt before the invasion. The Argentine regime, whose authoritarian and anticommunist agenda Thatcher surely supported, was forced to cede power. The United States paid a significant price in Latin America for its failure to support Argentina’s claim. The Reagan Administration lost one of its main allies in its campaign to defeat leftist currents in Argentina and the whole region. By the same token, the alliance of Reagan and Thatcher was confirmed in the guise of a reaffirmation of imperial prerogative.
Again like Reagan, Thatcher made the welfare state again debatable, and did her best, over more than a decade, to reaffirm an ethic of individual effort, an affirmation of private enterprise, and a commitment to the Cold War. She was very skeptical of Britain’s integration into the European Union. Although she certainly did not end the welfare state, nor prevent Britain from deepening its ties to Europe, she made both controversial. While she did not end the Cold War, she was an important intermediary between Reagan and Gorbachev.
Ousted from power in 1990 by a rebellion in Conservative ranks, replaced by John Major and then the New Labour of Tony Blair, Thatcher nonetheless had a fundamental and durable impact. Tony Blair’s route to power, after all, entailed leaving behind the commitment to organized labor and the goal of a socialized economy. After Thatcher, there was no majority for such a program.
The present coalition government of David Cameron would gladden her heart with its insistence on austerity in the midst of a massive recession. And Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first woman to head a government in Germany, affirms similar policies with an inflexibility that Thatcher would surely approve.
The United Kingdom and the European Union are still in the Age of Thatcher, just as we remain in the Age of Reagan.
Monday, 8 April 2013