When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she set about modernizing the British economy and creating an “ownership society.” In addition to closing unproductive industries, she privatized public services, with members of the public encouraged to buy shares in the new gas, electricity, and telecom companies. She allowed council house tenants to buy their homes, and opened the City of London to foreign investment, paving the way for it to become the financial powerhouse it is today.
In the whirlwind of change that followed over the next decade, there were inevitably losers as well as winners. Not everyone, after all, was equipped to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities on offer, especially those who had relied on the state for a living all their lives. Even Thatcher’s admirers would admit that she wasn’t bold enough in reforming some public services, notably education and the National Health Service.
But there were many more winners than losers. So Thatcher was re-elected twice, and the Tories even managed a fourth consecutive general election victory after she’d gone.
If the consequences of her policies were controversial at home, Thatcher’s successes overseas were indisputable. Just three years after coming to power she was faced with a test that no one could have foreseen: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Against the advice of some in her own party — and initially against the wishes of some in Ronald Reagan’s administration, who hoped for a diplomatic resolution — she resolved to retake the islands, and sent a task force almost 8,000 miles to do the job.
I like to think that Thatcher was well enough to have heard the news a few weeks ago, when the Falklands Islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain British subjects.
But while the Falklands War was a spectacular triumph for Thatcher, in the grand scheme it takes second billing to the part she played in winning the Cold War. Thatcher was ridiculed by the left — both at home and in mainland Europe — for her uncompromising attitude towards the Soviet Union, and for the alliance she formed against it with Ronald Reagan, who was viewed by European socialists as a reckless “cowboy.” She defied both Labour — which was committed to a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament — and the communist sympathizers in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to allow the U.S. to station cruise missiles on British soil.
Ultimately, Thatcher was brought down by divisions within her own party over Britain’s relationship with Europe, another issue on which she was ultimately proved right.
She was a keen supporter of the European Union as a free trade organization – indeed, she favored the creation of a transatlantic free trade area encompassing Europe and the U.S. — but she was strongly opposed to moves, led by France and Germany, to create a federal European superstate.
She also presciently opposed the European single currency, warning in 1990:
The single currency will be fatal to the poorer countries because it will devastate their inefficient economies.
The bailouts, bank runs, and riots that we’ve witnessed in the last few years, as one southern European country after another has been forced to the brink of economic collapse, have thoroughly vindicated her skepticism. At the time, she was viewed as extreme and misguided by Britain’s political and business establishments.
When Thatcher left 10 Downing Street for the last time as prime minister in November 1990, she said:
We’re very happy that we leave the United Kingdom in a very, very much better state than when we came here 11 and a half years ago.
That was an understatement. As her successor David Cameron said in paying tribute to her yesterday:
She didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country.
He might have added the she also helped to save Eastern Europe, and perhaps the entire continent.
Margaret Thatcher wasn’t right about everything, but she was right about most things, and everything she did was founded on a love of her country and her deeply held belief in the decency and potential of its people. Just as importantly, she showed that the British left was utterly and dangerously wrong about every major issue of her time; that is why so many of them hate her.