It was announced today that former British Prime Minister, Margaret (Baroness) Thatcher, has died of a stroke at the age of 87.
It is impossible to appreciate the difference she made without looking back to the changes that took place after World War II, when Britain entered a different era.
At the end of World War II, the British people voted in a Labour government, rejecting their wartime leader, Winston Churchill. The new government was pledged to radical changes at home and abroad at a time when Britain could least afford it.
In accordance with socialist convictions at the time, major areas of the economy were brought under state control – railways, coal mines, steel, health, to name just four. At the time, socialism was all the rage. The Soviet Union was still looked up to by many, after its significant efforts in World War II, as “the worker’s paradise.” Other countries in Europe had also embraced communism, along with China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Mongolia. Many of the countries in western Europe were social democracies, meaning that their economies were mixed, with government heavily involved in many areas, including healthcare.
It was to be a long time before most people realized that government should not run businesses. Even today, the conviction remains in most western countries that healthcare is best administered at the government level.
Growing up in England in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was a sense of terminal decline. The economy seemed to be in perpetual crisis, culminating in the 1967 devaluation of the British currency, which, in turn, led to the collapse of the sterling area. Britain’s currency had been the second reserve currency after the US dollar since Bretton Woods, with all former British colonies (except Canada) using it to trade and leaving their savings in British banks. By 1967, Britain could not maintain the value of its currency and change was inevitable.
At the same time, the postwar Labour government had started dismantling the empire. This process speeded up during the 60’s.
In the first few years of the 70’s, the crisis just seemed to get worse and worse, with the unions holding the country to ransom. In 1974, the country introduced a three-day working week in an effort to conserve power. In the middle of winter, people were freezing. Television stations (of which there were only three) had to close down at 10.30 pm to save power. Because too many people all went to the toilet at once (the British do not say “bathroom”), the TV stations had to stagger their closing times so as not to drain the water supply!
By 1979, the British were tired of this continual decline and voted in a new Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, who became the first woman prime minister in British history. In contrast to the terminal decline of previous decades, the 80’s were an exciting time to be in Britain, with significant changes taking place. Of course, these changes did not please everybody.
In trying to turn things around, Mrs. Thatcher had to tackle the unions, who were very powerful. Unemployment increased rapidly in the first few years of her period in office, but she stuck to her avowed policies of returning the country to greatness. The prime minister was unyielding – “the lady’s not for turning” as she proclaimed at a Conservative party conference.
Internationally, her strong will shocked other countries, un-used to British leaders standing up for their country. In 1982, when Argentina seized control of the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, she sent a military force to forcibly take them back. She frequently battled with EU leaders who she thought were taking advantage of Britain. When on a visit to Poland, she insisted on meeting with Lech Walesa, the anti-communist union leader, whom she encouraged to pursue a course that contributed to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. Whereas it was generally believed that once a socialist revolution had taken place, there was no turning back, she showed that things could be reversed. Eastern Europe is very different now that it’s free! It was the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who named her “the Iron Lady.”
In the UK itself, you can see clearly what a difference private enterprise makes when you take a journey by rail today!
Millions of people who once worked for the state now work for private companies. The City of London, Britain’s financial center, which accounts for 20% of the UK economy, was radically altered by her administration. Other nations copied her actions – extending free enterprise and reducing taxation.
Having made a major difference to Britain’s economy, Mrs. Thatcher failed to address what is arguably the biggest drain on national finances – the National Health Service. With her passing, it is doubtful anybody else will ever have the courage to tackle the NHS, which means that the financial burden is set to continue.
Internationally, there were two great failings – Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, the last two British colonies of any consequence. Her policies led to the disastrous dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, which continues to this day; and, it was felt, she could have got a better deal for Britain’s most economically successful colony, Hong Kong, when it was returned to China in 1997.
Margaret Thatcher, it has been said, put the “Great” back into “Great Britain,” at least for a time – the country once again seems to be unraveling in the Great Recession. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, described her as one of the “defining” political figures of her age.
She was returned to power in 1983 and 1987, but finally ousted by members of her own party who did not appreciate her strong will and abrasive manner. Living in the UK at that time, it was hard to find anybody who said they supported her, but when election day came, people voted with their wallets! Most people felt they were financially better off with her in office.
Change is always risky. Mrs. Thatcher set in train policies that continue to change the country, some in ways she would not appreciate. Decentralization led to devolution, which gave the Scots their own parliament – and may result in Scottish independence next year; her beloved House of Lords was made more democratic during Tony Blair’s government; her staunch pro-Americanism led Tony Blair to back unpopular wars instigated by the United States; her anti-EU rhetoric may culminate in Britain leaving the EU within the next two years.
The greatest compliment to Mrs. Thatcher lies in the fact that all successive prime ministers, whether Conservative or Labour, have lived in her shadow and have continued most of her policies. For her, and now the country, there was no turning back!
On a personal note, she paid a heavy price for her commitment to her convictions. On at least one occasion she talked of her regret at not having time with her grandchildren, saying, “You can’t have it all.”
The government has said that she will not be given a state funeral but will be honored with a ceremonial funeral, on a par with the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. At her own request, she will not lie in state.
A century from now, it is likely that only two prime ministers will be remembered from the 20th century – Sir Winston Churchill and Baroness Thatcher!