Hers was a revolution of ideas and economics that still can be seen in the struggle to shape the future of the West.
PARIS - She left her mark. Some look back with nostalgia, others with contempt, but few will deny that the 1980s were undoubtedly the “Maggie years."
British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 – three mandates – Margaret Thatcher left a major mark on her times. The “Iron Lady” was the first woman to be elected as leader of a major Western country. Not only did she give the UK back its confidence then, after years of stall and self-doubt, but we are all perhaps still living with Thatcher’s legacy today.
First, in regard to the economy. She arrived in power a few months before U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1980-1988), who became her ideological ally. Together, they reinvented economic liberalism. They shared a common enemy: the welfare state – established by the British Labor Party after World War II, and the Democrats in Washington in the 1960s.
Their argument is well-known: the Welfare State kills private initiative and hinders the production of wealth, it promotes an egalitarian society that discourages effort and merit while encouraging the poor to live on subsidies. It smothers that essential force, the founding energy that is the market. Thatcher and Reagan “deified” the free market, which – according to them – could do no wrong, because – oh miracle! – it can regulate itself.
Looking back at the UK of the late 1970s, this notion was not totally without merit. At the time, the country was living off aid from the International Monetary Fund, and its all-powerful unions paralyzed a huge public sector that was the result of massive post-war nationalizations.
“Thatcherism” – privatizing, fighting union monopolies, deregulating – gave momentum to the UK economy. But at the same time, entire vital public services were being dismantled, including education and health.
Add to this globalization and free-trade agreements – Thatcher and Reagan were not the only reasons why the economy is where it is today, but they were its intellectual spearheads.
The political left did its bit too to compensate the Thatcher-Reagan years. They couldn’t bring back the welfare state, so they created a “Third Way,” notably Tony Blair in London and Bill Clinton in Washington.
In truth, the Third Way is just another more civilized form of neo-liberalism. On top of that came, at the beginning of the 21st century, the monumental market crash – that was a result of that blind trust in the free market – proof that it does not in fact always regulate itself. That social-democrat left could not benefit from this fact is a continuing victory for Margaret Thatcher.
That’s not the only victory. Europe, unfortunately, still largely resembles the conception that Thatcher had of it: first and foremost a free-trade zone, and not at all a unified institution on the world scene. It is an association of sovereign countries, and not a united community, as its founding texts had hoped.
It is impossible to make a mark on one's times without great political talent. Charisma, charm, staying true to one’s principles, being courageous in one’s choices, being a true leader: Margaret Thatcher was all of that, undeniably.