Remembering the Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

Baroness Thatcher endowed a legacy of conviction for freedom and truth that will live on indefinitely. That will be her lasting contribution to human prosperity.

By Monica Morrill | April 14, 2013

Baroness Margaret Thatcher, amidst rain and sunshine in London, died on April 8, 2013 at 87 years of age. Even her last day in the United Kingdom was symbolic; Europe, emerging out of a long, tiring, and restlessly cold winter, parallels the political climate in which Thatcher completed her tenure as Prime Minister. The Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill described it at the dawn of the Cold War, fell at its dusk with the Iron Lady as she ended her premiership.

This is how most people will remember Margaret Thatcher broadly in political history; however, it’s appropriate to share the complexity and even the softer side of the Iron Lady, and how she fought and finessed a lady’s image into a male dominated world.

Thatcher came from humble beginnings. She cherished her ordinary life and the crucial role her father played as a preacher, a grocer, and his involvement in local politics. Throughout centuries of British history, her life story stands out as the most incredible demonstration of leadership, pioneering many paths, tempered with her love for her late husband Denis and their two children Carol and Mark. A number of people who knew Baroness Thatcher generously shared their reflections this week, reminding an American audience that the Conservative political spark that Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan began together is kept alive on the ‘shining city upon a hill.’

This success was not merely built on the ideas and arguments, but the conviction to implement them. Lord Strathclyde’s first impression of Margaret Thatcher when he joined her government in 1988, was one of “seriousness, kindness, humanity and a very clear aim that she wanted to achieve and how she wanted to achieve it, that was part of her personality.” Thus, it was not Thatcher’s convictions but her conviction, the sheer determination of her character. Thatcher knew what she felt, and she could articulate it clearly and with precision.

The current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, reflected last Wednesday on her remarkable leadership quoting Thatcher who said, “I am not a consensus politician, but a conviction politician.” However, Conservative Member of Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind who served the full 11 years of Thatcher’s time in office through three election victories, recalled that she confessed – surprisingly, “‘I do believe in consensus; there should be a consensus behind my convictions.’ I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary example of wit, but as the years have gone by I have realised that she was actually being deadly serious.”

As one political aide to Geoffrey Howe, her longest serving Cabinet colleague, has put it: “One of the most interesting features of Thatcher in government was the way she exercised power, especially given that many of her ministers were not ‘conviction’ Conservatives to the same degree. By sending out very clear messages from the center about her philosophy and assumptions, so that most ministers and civil servants could guess what her view would be on any issue, without referring the matter up to Number Ten, she multiplied her power and got many others throughout the system to advocate and pursue Thatcherite policies, almost by default.”

Undoubtedly, while Thatcher may have been absolutely ruthless and demanding, she was open and friendly to Members of Parliament, she was always kind to people under difficult circumstances, particularly if she had no reason to confront them.

One major challenge she did have to face, which launched her as a political figure globally, was her reaction to the invasion of the Falkland Islands by General Galtieri of Argentina. When Vernon Walters was negotiating with the Argentines, the Argentines questioned her strength, ‘what can Margaret Thatcher do? She’s just a woman.’ Walters reminded them of the convicted terrorists in Ireland who went on a hunger strike and Thatcher refused to give in: the hunger strikers died. Thatcher stood up to bullies, particularly the IRA who had killed her close friend Airey Neave in a car bomb. This made the Argentines think, but not enough to avoid their defeat. Eventually, Thatcher commanded the military to defend British sovereign territory to complete victory and the success of the Falklands War made her a world figure. Indeed, it strengthened her resolve against the Soviet Union.

On the front line of the Cold War battle, Thatcher needed the strength of the Anglo-American relationship. It had a mutual, yet overarching theme of vision and trust. Lord Strathclyde emphasized that saying, “They [Thatcher and Reagan] marshaled not just the military forces by deploying cruise missiles, much more importantly than that, they marshaled the intellectual and philosophical forces, the arguments of what brought down communism. They led a movement that was broadly based that was in East Europe and included many other leaders. It’s a key part of the relationship. The UK could not have done it on its own.”

Nor could the Americans have done it without the British. Although Thatcher had her reservations about the British Foreign Office, the U.S. equivalent of the State Department, she listened to the advice of the diplomats there, who spotted early on a young, aspiring new member of the politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev. This Russian was a man the British could try to cultivate and Thatcher had the wisdom to accept the advice of the British diplomats. In turn, according to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, it was Thatcher’s “persuading Ronald Reagan to accept her view that Gorbachev was a man with whom we could do business. Reagan would not have accepted that advice from most people, but coming from the Iron Lady, he said, ‘Well, if she believes that, then I can proceed on that basis.’”

Rifkind tells his version of the story above, however, Reagan did proceed with some discreet ‘trust but verify’ approaches, particularly when meeting with Pope John Paul II. The Pope personally met with Gorbachev and also gave Reagan the nod. What the Foreign Office was involved in was ‘engagement’ – it’s the process that matters. Equally, those around Thatcher knew how thoroughly she researched a topic. Thatcher was very well attuned and would follow advice from a number of sources and choose among the widest available options.

John Redwood who served as Thatcher’s chief policy adviser in the middle years commented that she sought a wide range of opinions, “she was so desperately concerned never to use the power of the great office without proper thought. She was also keen to ensure that, before she did anything, she knew what the criticisms would be and what might go wrong with it, because she had tested it to destruction.” Sir Tony Baldry, Member of Parliament, who had worked with Thatcher since 1974, was initially struck by “her prodigious work ethic, her indefatigable determination to analyze and understand any brief that she was given and the considerable attention she paid to the last detail.”

Lady Thatcher had also experienced her share of political controversy, mostly contrived, and it lasted well into her days in the House of Lords. In the autumn of 2005, my family and I accepted the kind invitation from an MP to visit and tour the British Parliament. Since only the House of Lords was in session, after tea we observed a discussion in the Chamber on Islam and terrorism. Margaret Thatcher was on the floor listening keenly to comments by her counterparts.

When she was Prime Minister, she never wasted words during debates and she was very precise, which was the reverse of her opposition. Thatcher always stayed from the beginning of the debate to the very end. It was a conviction of her duty to the people who elected her.

While we were in the House of Lords Thatcher did not speak, and that day in 2005 while my family and I were there, as we were exiting Parliament, passing the glories of Westminster Hall, my father approached a man, “Pardon me, do you work here?” The man replied that he did. My father continued, “Could you tell me if Lady Thatcher is here today? We were certain we saw her in the House of Lords.” The man replied, “I believe she is here today as I just passed her secretary and the secretary is only here when Margaret Thatcher is here.” My father and I were delighted; it was our confirmation that we had seen Lady Thatcher live. The man immediately changed his tone, “Oh, you like her do you? You want her? You can have her, take her back with you to the United States!” I retorted, “Listen. You may be around politics full-time, but I study economics, I know economics, and Margaret Thatcher saved your country.” The man had nothing more to say and continued walking down the long echoing chambers. That was my first real encounter with someone who was still holding on to the bitterness of Thatcher reforms, a disgruntled citizen and an employee of the Parliament.

So does such a reputation come with the job? Reform is war with policies, and ‘war is hell’, to quote the American Civil War General Sherman. Margaret Thatcher was entering a war in 1975 when she took over the leadership of the Conservative Party. Nigel Dodds of the Belfast North seat said that, “she once took great solace in those who hated her so much because she knew then that she was doing what was right and that they hated her for it.”

Likewise, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out that the,

“biggest misconception of Margaret Thatcher, a deliberate falsehood, is that she was uncaring and heartless. She was not at all this way. She understood that a lot of what had happened in the post-war period was condemning people to poverty, [Britain] was in decline, and she wanted to reverse it. Her real triumph is to take a nation in decline and say it doesn’t need to be like this. With absolute rigour, she won the day! We talked about property, businesses, inflation, we know that governments are no good at running enterprises.”

Putting the government above the free market was not negotiable in Thatcher’s government. Prime Minister Cameron concurred that Thatcher, “rejected this defeatism [government failures]…Inflation was to be controlled not by incomes policies, but by monetary and fiscal discipline: industries were to be set free into the private sector, trade unions should be handed back to their members; and people should be able to buy their own council [public] homes.” Sir Tony Baldry witnessed her studying and reflecting to the effect, “if the state takes all in taxation and spends all, we all become slaves of the state.” Margaret Thatcher wanted individuals, families and businesses to have a stake in Britain’s future and she wanted governments across the globe to adopt this bright opportunity to their citizens, the philosophy of limited government.

Although Lord Strathclyde joined Thatcher in 1988, when Reagan was concluding his presidency, he observed that “the strength of the [Reagan-Thatcher] relationship was based on mutual respect and philosophical understanding. The battle of ideas between freedom and the opposite was at its peak in the late 1970s and the early 1980s.”

After these ideas had been established, in a 1987 speech at a Conservative Family Rally in London, Thatcher concluded,

“Mr. Chairman, people want to live in peace … real, lasting peace.

—The industrial peace that enables them to earn a living without fear of victimisation or being called out on strike against their will and without a ballot.

—The peace that comes from independence of the state and being able to run your own life, spend your own money and make your own choices. (Applause.)

—And, above all, the peace of a country which is properly defended against any potential adversary.

For ours is a country with a past to be proud of.

And under the Conservatives it will be a country with a future to be proud of. (Cheers and applause.)”

Thatcher was famously known to proclaim, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” It was this sort of common sense infused into political rhetoric that struck the hearts of ordinary people, not just in the UK, but worldwide.

However, even during a vote, she kept her integrity and sense of humor. In the 1983 general election, Sir Jeremy Hanley won the Richmond, Surrey seat as Member of Parliament by just 74 votes. Years later in 1990, Hanley went to Downing Street to meet with Thatcher in advance of her speech and they recalled with amusement together when Hanley had thanked Thatcher for her help in getting him the 74 votes. The general election in 1983 was held after Britain’s Falkland Island victory. Thatcher paused, “I think I’m responsible for the 21,000 votes and I’ll give you the 74.” When people in Parliament heard this story, they had a rare glimpse into her sense of humor and affection towards people who worked closely with her. Sir Tony Baldry often thinks that there were two Margaret Thatchers: “the real Margaret Thatcher for those who knew and worked with her and the caricature Margaret Thatcher of some press commentators, satirists and political opponents.”

It’s true that one cannot help but think of the softer side of the Iron Lady as she was draped in beautiful evening gowns at White House State Dinners, or clasping a handbag from her incredible collection. “Lucky” Roosevelt, Chief of Protocol for Ronald Reagan remembers this delicate side of her with vivid detail, “Lady Thatcher was very feminine, and enjoyed speaking about fashion. We used to commiserate together about finding the right kind of shoes while still looking elegant.” Mrs. Roosevelt also pointed out that Thatcher never had an entourage, only a security and policy advisor. Thatcher didn’t bring her own hair stylist as did some wives of the heads of state, she had her hair done locally in Washington, DC. Thatcher was an early riser and usually slept about four hours while staying in Washington, DC, she was prompt, she was productive, and she was graceful.

Sir Jeremy Hanley, who first met Thatcher around 1976 and worked closely with her for over a decade said,

“I shall think of her as one of the most courageous politicians that I’ve ever known. 90% of the time she was absolutely right…There is no doubt that she admired Ronald Reagan’s strength of purpose, particularly keeping strong militarily. She actually improved the strength of our military forces and I think Ronald Reagan was an inspiration to her for that. Some people think that Margaret Thatcher adored Ronald Reagan and did whatever he wanted. That’s not at all what I believe, the truth was that she enjoyed working with the President and she admired him tremendously.”

Baroness Thatcher was a colossal political figure of courageous proportions. The struggle in Thatcherite politics lives on, and Lady Thatcher would have relished the discussion no matter how contentious, this did not ever intimidate her. But most of all, it’s endearing to know how deeply her attributes have been absorbed by those who worked with her in Parliament and the leaders she inspired. Baroness Thatcher endowed a legacy of conviction for freedom and truth that will live on in people indefinitely. That will be her lasting contribution to human prosperity.

Monica Morrill, ABD at Cambridge University, is an Economic Geographer and has taught as an adjunct at the Institute of World Politics. Ms. Morrill is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.