By Rich Lowry
Margaret Thatcher is on the cover of Newsweek, or — the next best thing — Meryl Streep is on the cover as the former British prime minister in a new biopic.
Thatcher is a rich theme. If the types who expound on such things didn’t so hate her politics, she’d launch a thousand dissertations on those inexhaustible academic themes of class and gender. As the daughter of a grocer, she was looked down upon as the personification of, in the words of one highfalutin critic, “the worst of the lower-middle-class.” As a woman in a man’s world, she was venomously attacked by her opponents as a “bitch” or “the bag.”
At this moment in our history, though, it is Thatcher’s central purpose that is most important: Her unyielding rejection of British decline. She rejected it with every bone in her middle-class body even though sophisticates scoffed at such a naive nationalism. She rejected it even though the grandees of her own party said it was inevitable. She rejected it even though she knew reversing it meant forcing a wrenching political and economic crisis.
The acrid whiff of decline is in the air in America, in the enduringly weak employment picture, in the spiraling debt, in the persistent pessimism about our prospects and in the intellectual preparation for a “post-American world.” Part of the volatility in the Republican presidential field is the unfulfilled hunger for a Thatcher-like figure. Needless to say, Thatchers aren’t often on offer.
The country she wanted to save was by the late 1970s an embarrassing wreck. After World War II, Britain’s leaders had grounded the ship of state on the shoals of socialism. The country was broke and beset by maliciously powerful unions. Humiliatingly, it had to go to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Henry Kissinger told President Gerald Ford in 1975, “Britain is a tragedy — it has sunk to begging, borrowing, stealing.”
It wasn’t enough to rage against Britain’s fate without correctly diagnosing the source of its sickness. As Claire Berlinski, author of the book-length study of Thatcher titled “There Is No Alternative,” notes, she made an unsparing and comprehensive case against socialism. “In the end,” Thatcher thundered, “the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality.”
Bold but never reckless, as prime minister Thatcher undertook a comprehensive free-market program to tame inflation, restrain spending, cut taxes, privatize industries, bring unions to heel and deregulate the financial industry. At one point, her approval rating dipped to 23 percent, but her vindication was a sustained return to dynamism and growth. Her victory in the Falklands War represented a turning point in national pride. She was Ronald Reagan’s partner in defeating the Soviets. By the end of her career, she had accomplished what Britain’s consensus had once deemed impossible.
In today’s America, the circumstances are very different, and the basic challenge is profoundly the same. Thatcher’s lesson is that decline is inevitable only if its self-fulfilling prophets prevail.
(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2012 by King Features Synd., Inc.