You may have heard that Meryl Streep is set to play Margaret Thatcher in a film due out later this month. Whether the movie will depict Maggie fairly, I cannot say. What I do know is that the Iron Lady earned her title through an unmatched record of determination and uncommon strength, and I think now — more than ever — our country can find inspiration in what she did.
In the 1970s, Britain was a country in decline. Its influence abroad was waning, its problems at home were mounting. Successive Conservative and Labour Party administrations had all but given up on returning the U.K. to its previous grandeur, and instead sought simply to lead the country gracefully toward a less-prosperous future. The head of the civil service termed it “the orderly management of decline.”
Unique among politicians at the time was a woman who did not accept the inevitability of decline. Moreover, she rejected the cross-party consensus that accepted the advance of an ever-larger state; as she would put it in later years, “to cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukemia with leeches.” Rather, she believed that reversing decline would require
convincing Britons that they — not the state — had the power to turn things around. It was not a popular idea at the time, but she eventually persuaded her party colleagues (who elected her Conservative leader in 1975), and then British voters (who elected her prime minister in 1979).
For Britain, it was a radical move. Thatcher came to office promising not to further sedate a declining society with more government, but to forcefully shake her compatriots back to prosperity. “I came to office with one deliberate intent,” she said. “[My aim was] to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society — from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.”
And, to the surprise of many, she actually implemented the policies she had campaigned on — and they worked. She lowered taxes, reduced the power of government to manage society, and increased the power of people to forge their own destiny. For instance, those living in government housing were given the opportunity to own their own homes. Stifling union laws that crippled the economy and kept workers out of jobs were reformed. State-owned companies that discouraged competition were sold off to millions of everyday Britons who (many for the first time) became stockholders.
By 1987, the year she ran for a third term, Britain had indeed changed radically — from a nation in decline to a country on the move. Its economy, once on the brink of collapse, roared back to solid growth. Once-rampant inflation had been dramatically lowered, and unemployment continued its downward trajectory. Thatcher was rewarded with an historic third majority election win — a landslide one, at that — becoming the first prime minister to do so since the 1800s.
For all of her accomplishments, though, Thatcher was not always a popular figure. In fact, many of the policies she proposed were quite unpopular at the time. But, history has proven the wisdom of her conviction in pushing them through. Even the Labour Party, which mercilessly savaged her policies while she was in office, could not deny their effectiveness when it eventually came to power in 1997. Labour not only left most of her reforms in place, but in fact continued with many of the same types of policies.
As the current Labour leader put it this year: “It was right to let people buy their council houses. It was right to cut tax rates ... it was right to change the rules on the closed shop, on strikes before ballots. These changes were right, and we were wrong to oppose it at the time.”
Thatcher showed us many things, including that decline is not inevitable. We each have the power within us to press ahead, even in the most difficult of times. Today, as Americans struggle with numerous economic challenges, let us never forget that we can push through this and emerge stronger.
All it takes is the right policies and the strength of conviction to see them through.