Margaret Thatcher's passing and the justified praise and respect extended by so many for her remarkable courage and determination while in office, affords conservatives everywhere an opportunity to reflect on the impact of her legacy on conservatism itself. It is important that we understand that her conservatism was neither monolithic nor narrow.
While celebrating boot-strap economic progress of those who strived and worked hard, whatever their class or ancestry, her conservatism also questioned the real value of a complacent landed aristocracy. This was awash from inheritance and the social standing of class, yet generated no great broad economic or social benefit for the United Kingdom as a whole. Her championing of the assisted sale of council (public) housing to the low-income residents also underlined a strong belief that, just as the inherited wealthy are not necessarily innovative or hard-working, neither are those in the low-income category lazy or without ambition.
Her conservatism was very much the conservatism of hard work and opportunity, as opposed to established class and entitlement. In this respect, she did choose a new course, not only for U.K. Tories, but for European conservatism generally. For Mrs. Thatcher, stability was not a goal but an instrument though which opportunity might be broadened and deepened. When unions threatened instability, she was not particularly threatened because caving in to the unions and their "who's in charge here" ultimatum would have enshrined the stability of economic dysfunction and a Britain that was then the "sick man" of Europe.
Privatizations of assets not fundamental to the precise duties of government were reflective of a pragmatism that required the stability of Crown corporations to be shaken up – not because they were evil, but because they were seriously under-performing at the taxpayer's expense. That Liberals and Progressive Conservatives also privatised Crown assets like Petrocan, Canadian National, Air Canada and many others since, indicates that pragmatism is contagious, if not particularly ideological.
There was a similar sense in her foreign policy of an opportunity-based approach. Supporting the Americans on theatre-based tactical nuclear weapons in Europe was a way of forcing Gorbachev and the Soviets to come to terms with the dilution of their domestic priorities through endless military spending. Her verdict after meeting Mr. Gorbachev was that "this was a man with whom you could do business." Her principled and unyielding military response to Argentine aggression on the British Falklands was also a way of telling the juntas of this world that they should not assume that the western powers had lost the will to engage militarily when no other option was suggested.
There is a disturbing tendency by proponents of a left-right analytical frame for all matters and most of history to dismiss Mrs. Thatcher as a hard right wing conservative, more about ideology than pragmatism. For those on the far left who are not open to any discussion of their own biases which can be, on occasion, both narrow and rigid, this dismissal of Thatcherism as a hard right caricature is obviously comforting. For those on the far right in conservative parties everywhere, who embrace Baroness Thatcher as a sterling symbol of their myopia at its best, they are broadly misrepresenting her stance for their own self-aggrandizing benefit.
Courage, impatience with bureaucratic delay or obfuscation and desire for changing things that need to be changed is not about right or left, it is about personality and character. And even when she was very wrong, as she was on the Poll Tax and sanctions against Apartheid, she thought she was doing the right thing. My fellow conservatives are free to appropriate having the courage to do the right thing as a particularly conservative practice. Those from other political movements will protest, not without some justification. That her time in office and the debate over what she stood for precipitates a debate about 'doing the right thing' and what it means, is but one of her many legacies that make this a better world.
Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative-Ontario) is Canada's Special Envoy to the Commonwealth.