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An Idea of Britain

An Idea of Britain

Mini Teaser: From this memoir we learn just how confident Margaret Thatcher is in her understanding of Britain's problems and her ability to find solutions. She knows her strengths.

by Author(s): Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

Margaret Thatcher's memoir, The Downing Street Years, is an absorbing account which faithfully reflects its author and subject. Its style is her style: lucid, decisive, self-confident, and engaging. Its story is her story: what she intended and planned, what she did, whom she appointed and fired, how she was finally brought down as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister of Great Britain.
We knew already that Margaret Thatcher was no Hamlet endlessly pondering difficult decisions, no Coriolanus too proud to state her case. From this memoir we learn just how confident she is in her understanding of Britain's problems and her ability to find solutions. She knows her strengths.

Of then-president George Bush, she writes that he was decent, honest, courageous and patriotic, but he "never had to think through his beliefs and fight for them when they were hopelessly unfashionable as Ronald Reagan and I had to do. This meant that much of his time was now taken up with reaching for answers to problems which to me came quite spontaneously because they sprang from my basic conviction."

Like most of the very small company of political leaders who actually change their time and place, Margaret Thatcher had a unifying vision of what Britain could be and should be. That vision was unfashionable, out of step with dominant opinion. But her vision of a more bold, successful, entrepreneurial, free Great Britain guided Thatcher as she guided Britain for over eleven years, much as Charles deGaulle's "idea" of France guided him through decades of effort to create the stronger, more united, more effective, more independent France that already existed in his mind. Like deGaulle and her great predecessor, Winston Churchill, Thatcher sought not only to revive Britain, but to strengthen and reinvigorate the British. Like deGaulle, Thatcher felt herself destined to accomplish this task.

Recalling the claim of Chatham, an eighteenth century predecessor, "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can," Thatcher says of her state of mind on becoming prime minister, "It would have been presumptuous of me to have compared myself to Chatham. But if I am honest, I must admit that my exhilaration came from a similar inner conviction." Grandiose? Self-important? Merely correct? The fact is that with purpose and power Margaret Thatcher, a most unlikely candidate for prime minister, proved the most effective incumbent of that office after Churchill, and established herself as one of the all time greats among Britain's prime ministers.

She promises us a second volume on the first fifty years of her life. It will presumably tell us more about how and when she came to care so much about public issues, how she came to run for office, and how she dealt with the psychological, social and political obstacles that have blocked the rise of other women in democratic politics. Presumably the next volume will tell us how she acquired the necessary political skills during her twenty years in the House of Commons before she burst onto the global scene as Prime Minister. For now we must accept her assurances that, though unconventional for a Conservative prime minister, her background had fitted her "curiously well" to lead Britain out of stagnation and decline.

From Consensus to Conviction

Though she called herself a Conservative, and was leader of the Conservative Party, Thatcher was committed to sweeping, decisive change in the goals and the methods of British government. Between 1947 and 1979 Labour and Conservative governments agreed on the fundamentals of the welfare state: government should ensure a decent standard of living to all, including a job with livable wages, adequate housing, medical care, education through the university level, pensions for the elderly and the disabled. To provide these entitlements, government, it was believed, should play a central role in planning and managing the economy, in harmonizing relations among interest groups, and generally deciding who should get what. Competition between the Labour and Conservative parties took place within this broad consensus on the role of government in a managed economy. Conservatives advocated somewhat less government, somewhat lower taxes and a somewhat larger "private sector." Labour, with its economic and social equality, advocated higher taxes, more nationalization, and further reduction of inequalities.

Differences between the parties stayed within the bounds of consensus on the social welfare state. As one analyst observed, policy differences between Tories and Labour in those years were not a case of Karl Marx versus Adam Smith, but of Beverage versus Keynes. The result was an ever larger state, a progressively stagnant economy, and a continuing deterioration in Britain's capacity to compete. Slowly a culture of dependence had developed and spread.

Margaret Thatcher did not create the critique of socialist Britain, or invent the case for restoring individualism and markets, but she recognized the symptoms of the "English Disease" and she understood that to try "to cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukemia with leeches."

By the time she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher had become convinced that collectivism, with its "centralizing, managerial bureaucratic, interventionist style of government" must be rejected, reversed and replaced with a policy of privatization, de-regulation, de-centralization and supply-side economics. She tells us that she was not the first Conservative Prime Minister to arrive at 10 Downing Street speaking of free markets, free enterprise, and lower taxes. She believes she was the first to actually target the policies against which the party campaigned. Thatcherism fractured the cozy consensus and challenged the essential premises and policies of socialist, corporatist Britain. She led a peaceful revolution.

Thatcher brought to this task a powerful sense of mission. The "inner conviction" that she was uniquely endowed to solve a nation's problems provided the confidence needed to contradict conventional approaches. It is moreover characteristic of the person and the memoir that she is willing to share with the reader her confidence in her ability to carry out the needed revolution. Her candor gives this memoir its authenticity, its conviction and its drama.

The Downing Street Years is an account of Thatcher's efforts to dismantle Socialist Britain, end economic decline, restore British morale and preserve the British nation from all dangers--including the European Union. Although bits of information are provided concerning her clothes, family, and feelings about strictly personal matters, they are fundamentally extraneous asides. Since Thatcher is a thorough-going political person, her thoughts and feelings mainly concern her political plans and actions. Other persons--Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, John Major, Franois Mitterrand and the like--enter the account as they figure in the political story line which invariably concerns her efforts to achieve a political goal.

In his own bitter review of this memoir, Geoffrey Howe comments that "For Margaret Thatcher in the final years there was no distinction to be drawn between person, government, party and nation." The memoir seems to me to bear this out, but its way of doing so suggests not that Thatcher's ego had grown to encompass the nation, but that her identification with the nation was so great it had obliterated the person--and also other persons, except as allies or obstacles to the pursuit of the goal at hand.

I suspect this fusion of the personal and the public purpose is typical not of politicians, but of authentic political leaders, and explains why such leaders so often disappoint their collaborators. The leader's overriding focus is on the political purpose. In the process to pursuing it, a leader typically subordinates personal loyalties to collective goals, disappointing old friends, acquiring new collaborators. Thatcher's repeated shuffling of colleagues without regard to their preferences or egos calls to mind Charles deGaulle's habit of dumping loyal prime ministers.

However common such behavior may be in political leaders, it can become a fatal flaw when the leader is dependent on the continuing support of colleagues--as in the British system. Thatcher tells us that in the end "what grieved me most was the desertion of those I had always considered friends and allies..." She had been too preoccupied with the pursuit of public goals to notice the extent to which friendships and alliances had soured, and grown fewer. The price for careless treatment of colleagues was political downfall. It was dramatically appropriate that Geoffrey Howe, one of her closest associates, who had been most carelessly treated, should have played the crucial role in bringing her down.

Here, too, convictions probably played a greater role than personal pique and wounded ego. Britain's relationship with Europe was very important to Thatcher's problems with Howe, with Nigel Lawson and with a crucial number of back-benchers who withheld their timely support when she needed it most.

It is not difficult to account for her careless unconcern about her power base. No sitting prime minister had ever been brought down by his party. At the heart of the revolt against Margaret Thatcher was a momentous public issue: Britain's relations with Europe.

An Idea of Europe

This memoir puts "Europe" in the context of Thatcher's broader program and, I believe, explains how this issue became so central for Margaret Thatcher that she was ready to oppose the dominant opinion of virtually all of Western Europe, and also of the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Her goal, as I have said, was to restore the vitality of Great Britain. That fundamental purpose, stated with special clarity in her speech on the "spirit of the Falklands," explains far more than what still seems to me an anachronistic war: "We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence--born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8000 miles away...We rejoice that Britain has rekindled the spirit which has fired her for generations...Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won."

Margaret Thatcher's "idea" of Britain turns out to be remarkably similar to Charles deGaulle's "idea" of France. What Thatcher sought for Britain was what Machiavelli called virtœ. It is to nations what life force is to persons. She opposed British socialism because it did not work and moreover weakened Britain, sapped its vitality, and levelled its potential heroes.

This purpose--more fundamental than her economic program--links Thatcher to other great leaders of her party, and guaranteed her hostility to the Europe of Jacques Delors and the Maastricht Treaty, which in her view proposed to emulsify the identities and traditions of Europe's peoples. The Europe of Delors she emphasized is not to be confused with deGaulle's Europe des patries or with a common market. "I am enthusiastically pro-European," Thatcher declared in a long, thoughtful interview in Paris Match. "But for me, European civilization existed long before the signing of the Treaty of Rome and the founding of the European Community."

On the question of Europe's future, Thatcher's most deeply held concerns and convictions about economic and foreign policies merge. She has two criticisms of the EC as foreseen in Brussels: First, it excludes too much of Europe. Europe is larger than the Community. "It includes Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Moscow." And: "In this Europe I include the Europe of the other side of the Atlantic, which is the United States." Second, the Europe of Brussels would be dirigiste, socialist. It reminded her of the long struggle against socialism in Britain. It raised for her the danger that socialism would return by the back door. "We did not lead this victorious struggle in favor of freedom only to be ruined by a new bureaucratic Socialism," she quotes herself from at Bruges. "Under Socialism, while the state grows richer, the people grow poorer in their living standards and in their liberties." "It is not governments which create wealth. They never have. Under a statist, Socialist system people work as little as possible. That is what happened in the Soviet Union. It is why I will resist with all my strength the arrival of socialism in Europe--with its soft words and hard realities."

We can readily see why she ardently opposed ec control of British monetary, social, and economic policy. It is not so easy to see how it happened that Thatcher found herself with so many "Europeans" in her cabinet, and so few loyalists on whom she could count when challenged. But, of course, she had not taken this issue much into account in appointing the Cabinet. As plans for greater integration of Europe developed, Thatcher's reservations turned to outright opposition: "I was opposed root and branch to the whole approach of the Delors report," she wrote. The concept of a "social market," a corporatist, highly collectivized consensus-based system was utterly repugnant. Submitting Britain's currency to a European Monetary System and losing control was anathema. This is how Thatcher felt; but Geoffrey Howe, she tell us, "laboured with an almost romantic longing for Britain to become part of some grandiose European consensus." A "misty Europeanism" became Howe's "touchstone" in foreign affairs. Europe became a "cause to guide him." It was one on "which the two of us were far apart."

In Thatcher's relations with Nigel Lawson as well, Europe played a crucial role. Lawson, she says, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had a "passionate" desire to take the British pound into the European Monetary System; Howe and Lawson were thus allied in what Thatcher believed to be an ill-conceived scheme, that was, moreover, doomed to fail.

"The belief that the laws of economics and the judgements of the markets can be suspended by clever people is a perpetual temptation to folly," she notes. Differences on Europe spread, exacerbating other irritations. Howe, Thatcher reports, had "developed an insatiable appetite for compromise." Thatcher, Howe charges, declined even to discuss issues with her principal ministers, and so it went until the end.
It should not surprise us that these relationships which were based on shared convictions would unravel as the issues changed. There was little chance that personal relations could survive substantive differences with this conviction politician.

The successes of the Thatcher government had diminished the salience of the issues that brought her to power: The "malign, if unspoken, compact between state-ownership and monopoly trade unionism" (Howe's words) had been broken. Privatization and decentralization had diminished the state. Decreased taxes and de-regulation were underway. Paralyzing burdens on investment and entrepreneurship had been lifted, inflation was under control. The British economy was growing. The British political class was free to think about other possibilities. Once that happened, the consensus vital to the acceptance of this remarkable woman by her male colleagues evaporated and left her no adequate base on which to stand. And so Thatcher went as she came, on the most important issue confronting Britain.

It is a Shakespearian tale of such richness it cannot be described without being oversimplified. That Margaret Thatcher was willing to tell it with such candor puts us once more in her debt.
I have nearly completed these comments--without even a mention of Ronald Reagan. Obviously, the fact that these two pursued such similar goals strengthened the impact of both. Both came to power deeply concerned with the growing power of the state and the loss of control by persons over their lives. Ronald Reagan was already saying in 1964 what Thatcher might have said, "The government has laid its hand on health, housing, farming, industry, commerce, education, and to an ever-increasing degree, interferes with people's right to know. The truth is that outside its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well and as economically as the private sector of the economy." And he too believed in the vitality of free people.

Years before Ronald Reagan achieved national attention, he was telling audiences across the country that it is individuals who create wealth and growth, not governments, that raising taxes would encourage more government spending and less private investment, that it would slow economic growth, reduce production, destroy future jobs, making it more difficult for those without jobs to find them, taxes would more likely make those who now have jobs lose them. In 1981, he observed, "the economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal [government]."

Critics who insist that Thatcher and Reagan had no new ideas are in a sense correct. Their ideas were not original. Aristotle had proposed them, and Adam Smith, and James Madison. But both understood the relations of old ideas to new leadership. "The presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership," said Franklin Roosevelt. "All our great presidents were leaders at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified. This is what the office is, a superb opportunity for reapplying and applying in new conditions the simple rules of human conduct to which we always go back."

Not all the simple rules are equally important. But the ideas that guided Thatcher and Reagan--two very different conviction politicians -- were basic to the experience and identity of both Britain and America. And that of course is what accounted for unusual success of each.

Essay Types: Book Review