One of the giants who walked the earth in my lifetime, Margaret Thatcher, has died at the age of 87.
With the exception of Winston Churchill, she was, without question, the greatest British prime minister of the 20th century. Before she went to 10 Downing Street in 1979, Britain had been in seemingly irreversible decline, its empire gone, its industry ramshackle, its politics in thrall to the trade unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe. By the time she left office, in 1990, all that had changed. The power of the unions had been broken, the British economy was expanding rapidly, the government had sold off previously socialized industries. The United Kingdom was, once again, one of the great nations of the world.
Like all great people of determination and principle, she was savagely criticized. She was called “La pasionaria of privilege” and “Attila the hen.” But, thoroughly at home in the rough and tumble of the House of Commons, it didn’t bother her a bit. She was delighted when Mikhail Gorbachev dubbed her “the iron lady.” Along with Ronald Reagan, with whom she developed a very close relationship, she changed the whole tone of international politics and helped bring the Cold War to an end with the collapse of Communism and the success of free-market capitalism. The world was a different, and better, place after her premiership.
Perhaps her finest moment was when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. Thousands of miles away from Britain, inhabited by a few thousand sheep farmers, cold and rainy, many thought the islands not worth the price that would have to be paid to recover them. But Margaret Thatcher, convening a cabinet meeting on the subject after the news of the invasion, said simply, “Gentlemen, we shall have to fight.”
And fight they did. It cost millions of pounds and hundreds of lives, but Britain recovered the islands and defeated naked aggression. The results elsewhere were enormously positive. Not only did the people of the Falklands keep the government they wanted, but the junta ruling Argentina fell and democracy returned to that much misgoverned country. The victory greatly raised British spirits and national pride, which badly needed raising. Thatcher called an election following the military triumph and enjoyed a political one.
Like all great political leaders, Margaret Thatcher was a great personality. Like FDR, Churchill, and Reagan, people who never met her still felt they knew her almost personally. She was far more than just a name in a headline. And that is why, along with her accomplishments, Margaret Thatcher is immortal, one who will be written about and argued about for as long as the 20th century itself is. After all, she has already been the subject of a great Hollywood movie. Can you imagine anyone making a movie about Edward Heath or Harold Wilson?