So far, the best summary of the legacy of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a line from Mark Steyn: she was the “anti-declinist.”
Mrs. Thatcher’s predecessor as prime minister, the amiable but forgotten Sunny Jim Callaghan, once confided to a friend of mine that he thought Britain’s decline was irreversible and that the government’s job was to manage it as gracefully as possible. By 1979, even this modest aim seemed beyond the capabilities of the British establishment, and the nation turned to a woman who was one of the few even in a supposedly ‘conservative’ party not to subscribe to the Callaghan thesis. She reversed the decline, at home and overseas.
Decline is a choice. A nation declines in wealth, power, and influence either because it passively allows itself to slip away, or because it actively seeks its own humiliation.
The Callaghans, who let it slip away, do so because they think decline is inevitable. They don’t know how their nation’s greatness was established in the first place, so they have no idea how to restore it. Without an understanding of basic principles, they view the ebb and flow of national power as merely a fact of nature to be accepted.
But behind this passive approach is a deeper, more corrosive conviction. There are those who actively hasten national decline because they think it is deserved.
The left thinks that Western nations, particularly Britain and the United States, deserve to decline because they are capitalist. In the service of this ideological vendetta, they seize on real or imagined sins as a pretext to induce a sense of national guilt and undermine the legitimacy of whole system. In America, they seize on the history of racism (a sin that is both real and imagined). In Britain, the supposed sin was colonialism, and Britain spent the thirty years prior to Thatcher carelessly giving away its empire. For the most part, this was not a gain for democracy or for freedom. In many cases, the locals traded colonial rulers for brutal dictators, or they left the British Empire to become satrapies of the Soviet Empire—which was not a trade up, to say the least.
But that was never the point. The point was to leave the capitalist powers of the West feeling as if decline was their natural fate and that they didn’t deserve to do anything to stop it.
The United Kingdom was hit by this mania of national self-flagellation earlier than the US and by the 1970s had been brought down lower. After the Allied victory in World War II, the left hit Britain with a one-two punch. Socialism and the nationalization of industries embalmed the economy—and this left Britain too poor to defend or maintain her empire.
The empire was mostly gone by the time Mrs. Thatcher took office, but she reversed the economic decline. Steyn writes about how the public employees unions, representing workers in nationalized industries, dominated British politics. Thatcher faced them down, particularly in a bitter, year-long coal miner’s strike in 1984-85. This was followed in 1986 by a “big bang” of deregulation that restored the global status of London’s financial center.
Thatcher’s confidence in Britain’s greatness was not merely traditional but was rooted in intellectual conviction. She was an ideological leader, a student of free-market economics and philosophy who was able to articulate these ideas in clear language and witty anecdotes. As the daughter of a grocer who had broken all barriers to rise to the top of British politics, she was able to appeal to the British common man. Today’s Republican Party would do well to sit down and take some notes.
In foreign policy, Thatcher was Ronald Reagan’s champion among our NATO allies. Europe was, after all, the main battleground on which World War III was likely to be fought. Facing the threat of annihilation, Western European countries were at risk of being “Finlandized,” intimidated into submission. Thatcher helped give Western Europe an infusion of backbone. She was part of the great triumvirate of “the president, the pope, and the prime minister” who worked together to undermine the Soviet Union. And for the first time in years, she defended Britain’s overseas territories in the Falklands War. Afterwards, Mrs. Thatcher declared:
We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away. And so today, we can rejoice at our success in the Falklands and take pride in the achievement of the men and women of our task force. But we do so, not as some flickering of a flame which must soon be dead. No, we rejoice that Britain has rekindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before. Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.
As important as she was to Britain, Margaret Thatcher also looms large in the American imagination, because it wasn’t just Britain that was facing “inevitable” decline. She came to office in early 1979, almost two years before Reagan, while America was still floundering in the post-Vietnam, Carter-era malaise. Thatcher demonstrated that decline is a choice, and she showed us what it looks like when you reject that choice.
What Americans have always loved about the British character is the archetype of the indomitable Briton, from when James Thomson declared that “Britons never shall be slaves,” to when Churchill thundered his defiance against fascism, to when Margaret Thatcher firmly proclaimed the value of liberty.
We hope that this spirit is not gone, and look to see it again. In the meantime, we bid farewell to Margaret Thatcher, the last of the indomitable Britons.