It is a common conceit of age to imagine that giants roamed the earth in one’s youth while today the political scene is populated by pygmies. But I still cling to that view, for my formative years occurred while Ronald Reagan was president and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Naturally, as an American, I was more focused on Reagan. But Thatcher, whose exploits were covered in the newspapers and magazines that I read (the Los Angeles Times, National Review, Newsweek), was an inspiration too. That is why I am sad to learn of her death, although it was hardly unexpected–she had been terribly debilitated by strokes in recent years.
What Reagan and Thatcher showed–and it is a lesson that may seem at odds with the conservative impulse that the private sector is the most significant–is what a difference political leadership can make. (Later Rudolph Giuliani showed the same thing–he was for urban policy what Reagan and Thatcher were for national policy.) They both inherited a mess: In Thatcher’s case she took over in 1979 following the “Winter of Discontent” when Britain was paralyzed by multiple strikes and high unemployment. As the Conservative advertising slogan had it, “Labour isn’t working.” Reagan, of course, took over from Jimmy Carter in the wake of the failed hostage-rescue mission and in the midst of a severe recession characterized by “stagflation.” Worst of all was a widespread loss of confidence in the future–both in Britain and America it was fashionable back then to imagine that the “the West” was finished and that the Soviet Union was ascendant.
Reagan and Thatcher would have none of it. Both were firmly outside the political and intellectual mainstream, and both were derided as simpletons for imagining that they could reverse the course of history. But that is precisely what they did–Reagan with his tax cuts (helped by Fed chairman Paul Volcker’s anti-inflationary policy) and defense spending increases which, respectively, revived the economy and restored our military power; Thatcher with her income-tax cuts, budget cuts, interest-rate hikes and her willingness to stand up to the unions, all of which revived the British economy, and her willingness to fight Argentina for the Falkland Islands, which restored British confidence.
It was a bravura performance, all the more so because both Thatcher and Reagan had to overcome personal doubts about their ability to govern, doubts exacerbated, in her case, by her gender (she was the first and so far only female prime minister in Britain) and, in his case, by his former profession (he was the first and so far only actor to become president). Thatcher’s challenge was all the greater given that so much of the Conservative Party remained “wet”–i.e., skeptical of her conservative principles. Eventually it was not the political opposition but her own party which toppled her, leading to a long period of Conservative wandering in the wilderness, punctuated by uninspiring rule first by John Major and now by David Cameron, neither of whom will ever be mentioned in the same breath as the Iron Lady.
Like Reagan, Thatcher was vindicated by history–and just as Reagan was praised by Bill Clinton, so she was praised by Tony Blair. She will be remembered as the greatest female ruler since Queen Elizabeth I and the greatest British prime minister since Winston Churchill.
Her example, and Reagan’s, is worth remembering today at a time when there is widespread pessimism in both Britain and America about our ability to solve our long-term problems–pessimism created in no small part because of the anemic economies presided over by David Cameron and Barack Obama. The problem now, as in 1979, is not with the underlying American or British society. The problem is with our political leadership. Reagan and Thatcher showed what inspired leadership can achieve. Imagine what we could do if giants like them were to walk the earth again. That may seem unlikely, but we can take heart from the fact that the worse a crisis is, the higher the prospects that a great leader will emerge out of the political muck.