“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 8,000 miles away.”
Those words, uttered by Margaret Thatcher in a triumphant speech after the Falklands War, may offer the most concise and effective explanation of lasting appeal to admirers abroad and to a loyal minority of voters in her own country. For a brief moment, not seen for four decades before or any time after, Britain seemed to loom large in the world.
The influence of Mrs. Thatcher on world affairs during her decade in power was outsized and all-pervading. It was as if her voice was everywhere, her presence decisive in every international decision. For a while, those “economic battles” seemed to infuse the political atmosphere in every country, whether across the English Channel or 8,000 miles away.
In the wake of her death, we can still find plenty of Margaret Thatcher in the world. Or, at least, in the minds of a generation of politicians on the right: In both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, her stalwart character and unflagging devotion to economic liberalism and policy discipline made her a role model and a figurehead. She was that rarest thing in politics – a pure ideologue who won elections.
Beyond personal inspiration, though, you will be hard-pressed to find any trace of “Thatcherism” in the world today. As a set of political ideas, a tool kit of ways to run a country and organize the world, Thatcherism ended with Mrs. Thatcher’s political career.
There were two components. The first was domestic. Mrs. Thatcher seemed to transform her country from one that had been bailed out of a Greek-style economic crisis in 1976 to a place of opportunity and rising wealth, simply by lowering taxes and reducing the size and role of the state.
Dozens of politicians hoped to imitate her. None succeeded. Ronald Reagan probably tried the hardest, and his policies ended up pushing both taxes and spending to their highest levels. The Thatcher formula, leaders found, couldn’t be exported.
What Mrs. Thatcher’s imitators lacked were the two secrets to her domestic success: a flood of North Sea oil money, which started shortly after her election and peaked at a 10th of the world’s supply in 1985; and a banking industry that was easily transformed into a safe haven for much of the world’s savings and capital. She used the fruits of both of these windfalls to buy momentary prosperity and electoral victory – but not to make lasting investments. By 1990, her twin magic wands had ceased to function.
Within her Conservative Party, the Thatcherites have been reduced to a marginal rump. Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected Thatcherism outright. And both Tory and Labour parties have spent the last 23 years attempting to rebuild the state institutions damaged by the Thatcher decade.
The other half of global Thatcherism was foreign policy. And this was decidedly trapped in the Thatcher era.
At first, she balked: “Must I do all this international stuff?” That, according to former minister Alan Clark, was what she groaned in 1979. She soon made up for it, and did a lot of international stuff.
Most of it was designed to prevent or delay the great changes that soon would transform and vastly improve the world. And most of this was done to preserve Britain’s moment of fleeting power in the world.
She worked hard to prevent the Berlin Wall from coming down and aggressively opposed German unification, telling her ministers in the midst of the 1989 uprisings not to support them. “We know perfectly well what the Germans are like and what dictators can do and how national character basically doesn’t change.” Her reason was simple: A free, post-Communist Germany would become a European voice to rival Britain’s.
She fought hard against nuclear disarmament, to the point of opposing Mr. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative because she feared it could render nuclear weapons obsolete – thus making Britain, as a nuclear power, less influential.
She lobbied hard against ending racial segregation in South Africa, denouncing sanctions and boycotts as “patronizing” to the apartheid regime, not because she was a racist (she wasn’t) but because she saw the maintenance of racist policies as crucial to maintaining Britain’s economic power in its former colony.
Luckily for the world, her foreign policies were generally failures. There was one exception, the one that U.S. secretary of state Alexander Haig described as “a Gilbert and Sullivan battle over a sheep pasture between a choleric old John Bull and a comic dictator in a gaudy uniform.” The Falklands War also had no meaning beyond Mrs. Thatcher’s term, or even beyond 1983 (although, quite by accident, it precipitated the end of Argentina’s military dictatorship).
But it created the worldwide image of a triumphant, headstrong, unstoppable, stalwart Margaret Thatcher. And that image, more than any of the accidents of fate that lay behind her success, has remained. Thatcherism has vanished, Cheshire-like, leaving only the memory of a beaming face beneath a bold coiffure.