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March 28th, 2002

  The Thatcher Giant

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Last Friday Margaret Thatcher announced that she will be making no more public speeches. Now 76 years old, the woman who served as Britain's prime minister from 1979 to 1990 has suffered a series of minor strokes, the first of them last fall. Her new book, Statecraft, is out this week, after having been serialized in The Times of London, and Lady Thatcher (as she is most properly styled, having been elevated to the peerage in 1992) had planned a busy promotional tour, with plenty of speeches. Some of the schedule will go ahead — I believe she is signing books at a London bookstore as I write — but there will be no more speeches.

Old age is a very cruel thing, to the mighty and the humble alike. Now all three of the towering figures of the 1980s are to some degree incapacitated. Ronald Reagan is afflicted with Alzheimer's; Karol Wojtyla is increasingly, ever more obviously, infirm; and now we have lost the public voice of Margaret Thatcher. It is truly remarkable — enough to make one wonder if the Divine Guidance theory of history may not, after all, have something to be said for it — that all three of these champions of freedom and truth assumed high office within a few months of each other. Wojtyla was elected to the Papacy in October 1978; Thatcher became Prime Minister in May of 1979; Ronald Reagan was inaugurated President in January 1981. All of them faced great challenges; all met those challenges resolutely, armed with firm principles and clear words. Between them, they transformed the world — beginning, in the cases of Reagan and Thatcher, with their own countries.

These things are easily forgotten. Almost as cruel as the physical and mental deterioration of old age are the workings of democratic politics, in which great national leaders, saviors of their people, are hustled aside when their task is done so that less momentous issues can be dealt with by more suitable operators — persons, that is to say, of less moment. Churchill is the obvious instance of this; though, as Lady Thatcher observed somewhat tartly in her memoirs, he at least had the consolation of having been dismissed by the country's electorate, while she herself was sent packing by her own government colleagues in a fit of panic over matters of "presentation."  Worse indignities were to follow, as the moral clarity of the Thatcher years became clouded o'er with the pale cast of 1990s-style "triangulating" politics, and the lady herself was mocked as a relic — "out of touch" and "irrelevant";  "strident,"  when the public taste was more for the soft word that turneth away wrath.

It was of course Thatcher herself who made the new politics possible. The fields that Tony Blair and his smooth-speaking colleagues plow today were blasted free of rocks and stumps twenty years ago by this great woman's own energy and resolution. Britain on the eve of the Thatcher years was in a very sorry state. I remember flying from London to Hong Kong in January 1979. There were half a dozen strikes going on in Britain — baggage handlers, railroads, hospital workers, even (if I remember correctly) grave-diggers. Inflation was at 13 per cent, and the economy was a wreck — the IMF had stepped in three years earlier to impose financial constraints, as if we were some Caribbean banana republic. Even the weather was vile the day I managed to escape. As the plane lifted off the tarmac and London dwindled away below, I sighed inwardly with relief. Thank God I am out of all that, at least! I returned three months later, just in time for the general election, which I watched on TV at the home of some leftist friends. They were dismayed at the Conservative victory, of course. "There's an end to progress," one of them remarked sourly. In retrospect, I don't think I ever heard a more wrong-headed remark in my life.

There followed the mighty battles that transformed Britain and helped create the world we now inhabit. Inflation was destroyed by strict financial discipline. The labor unions, who had taken advantage of their legal immunities to hijack Britain's public services, were faced down and their power smashed. The "nationalized industries" — great calcified behemoths producing nothing but burdens on the public fisc — were broken up and sold off to private investors. With American help, once Ronald Reagan was in power, the Soviet Union itself had its bluff called, and was brought to its knees at last. Irish terrorists who went on hunger strike were allowed to starve. Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands was met with a strength of will I had not thought my country capable of (and which, I feel sadly certain, she no longer is capable of).

And up in front of all the spirited and resolute action were the words, the rhetoric of Maragret Thatcher. Philip Johnston, writing in the Daily Telegraph last week, notes correctly that while lacking in great wit, extempore brilliance or ringing phrases, the lady's public speeches were memorable none the less for their clarity, consistency and plain moral content. Listen:

You might disagree with Margaret Thatcher about this or that, but she never left you in any doubt where she stood. Nor was it possible to mistake the source of her convictions — a crystal-clear moral sense, rooted in faith.

That last quote is actually a very recent one, and concerns the issue that now preoccupies her: the slow absorption of Britain into a corporatist, bureaucratized, culturally and economically schlerotic European super-state. For speaking out against this horrible project, Margaret Thatcher has endured the obloquy of all right-thinking politicians in England, including most of those in her own party. There is no doubt that she is correct to loathe and fear the prospect of a Eurostate, though. Proponents of the new order like to tell us that the Europe of their dreams will be a rival to America, will in fact be (according to Tony Blair): "The most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010."  Rival to America? When I walk down my street here on Long Island, I see a dozen or more houses proudly flying the Stars and Stripes. If, on your next trip across the Atlantic, you see the flag of the European Union flying from any private homes, please let me know.

All the trend lines, in fact, point to the new Europe being more of a rival to the old U.S.S.R. in stagnation, political unresponsiveness, and delusions of grandeur among its ruling elites. Year by year the continent falls further behind the U.S.A. in living standards, productivity and technological creativity. The European Union's own figures show current American per capita income at 152 per cent of the EU average, the biggest gap since the era of post-war reconstruction. The only thing being accomplished by the vast Euro-bureaucracy is an ever more oppressive "social agenda," with job-killing, lawyer-enriching regulation, labor union intrusion in corporate decision-making, extravagant welfare benefits, endless laws against "discrimination"  and "hate,"  and a speech-muffling code of Political Correctness to shut up all dissent. Meanwhile unemployment soars and Third World immigrants pour in.

Public speeches or no, it is hard to believe that Margaret Thatcher will be able to keep quiet on what she correctly sees as a grave threat to the traditional freedoms of the nation she loves, the nation she has served so valiantly. She made a revolution; but she is wise enough to know that politics is much more like gardening than mathematics. The weeding is never done, the pests never completely eliminated, the problems never finally solved. As she herself put it in The Downing Street Years:

I was, however, wrong on one important matter. Of course, I understood that some of my Cabinet colleagues … were more to the left, some more to the right. But I believed that they had generally become as convinced of the rightness of the basic principles as I had. Orthodox finance, low levels of regulation and taxation, a minimal bureaucracy, strong defence, a willingness to stand up for British interests wherever and whenever threatened — I did not believe that I had to open windows into men's souls on these matters. The arguments for them seemed to me to have been won. I now know that such arguments are never finally won.

As long as she can speak at all, or tap on a keyboard, we shall be hearing from Margaret Thatcher. We would do well to listen.