Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom for 11 stormy years, was a leader of conviction and iron will. Her legacy is controversial, but her death is a time of sadness.
As did former President Ronald Reagan — her friend and conservative soulmate in the United States — she was unwavering in her adoration of the free market.
She systematically privatized UK institutions like British Petroleum, British Airways and Rolls Royce, although she defended Britain’s government-run National Health Service and supported international agreements to address climate change. She crushed unions with even more vigor than Reagan. Her zealous deregulation of the financial markets caused a boom and then a bust, much as it did in the United States.
Thatcher was no feminist, yet she advanced the cause of women around the world. Her competence and strength as the first and only female prime minister of Britain was a poignant reminder to both genders that stereotypes are a mistake. In a delightful rejection of political correctness, Reagan called her “the best man in England.”
The Iron Lady spurned the socialist states of Europe, some of which had become bloated and inefficient. She joined with Reagan in a successful effort to topple the Communist Soviet Union, and her friendship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the primary weapons.
Like Reagan in America, Thatcher helped turn conservatism into a potent political force. Her personal appeal and persuasive rhetoric spurred people who benefited from large government to join in the call for smaller government.
Asking whether Thatcher was right or wrong in her view of the proper role of government is the wrong question. In Britain as in the United States, law and policy are the result of compromise.
Thatcher framed the issue as being between large government and small, between a government directly assisting the poor and one that assists all citizens indirectly by promoting economic growth.
We need not determine whether Thatcher was correct in her view of government. She framed a debate that, while contentious, is helpful.
Britain, like America, needs to find a balance between the extremes. The nations must help their neediest residents, but also must keep their governments from becoming so bloated they sap capitalist incentives. Taxes must be high enough to maintain a balanced budget, but not so high they discourage investment.
By articulating conservatism in a way the people could understand it, Thatcher set the stage for healthy compromise in both nations. Her legacy is not simple, but her contribution to a vigorous and continuing debate over the appropriate role of government was lasting.