OpinionOp-Ed

Goldberg: What 'the Iron Lady' forged

ElectionsPoliticsBritainRepublican PartyConservative Party (UK)CultureArts and Culture

In 1975, when asked to explain why Margaret Thatcher was poised to take over the Tory Party, the irascible British satirist Malcolm Muggeridge replied that it was all due to television and the fact that the telegenic Thatcher had a "certain imbecile charm."

That was one of the nicer things said about an "imbecile" who earned a degree in chemistry from Oxford and passed the bar while studying law at home.

The lesson here is that being underestimated is a great gift in politics. Ronald Reagan was dubbed an "amiable dunce" before he was known as "the Teflon president," and Thatcher had imbecile charm before she was dubbed — by the Soviets — "the Iron Lady."

PHOTOS: Margaret Thatcher | 1925 - 2013

When the news of Thatcher's death broke Monday, I went back to the archives of National Review to look at what William F. Buckley (my former boss) had to say about her when she was a fresh face. Dismissing the skeptics, Buckley was impressed by her humble personal story, given that she hailed from a "party that has tended, when looking for a leader, to thumb through lists of unemployed Etonians." He concluded: "It is my guess she bears watching. Put me down as a fan."

Just over four years later, Buckley penned a column with the headline: "Margaret Is My Darling." The day before the elections, he had wired her (for you kids, that means he sent her a telegram. Google it): "I AND WHAT'S LEFT OF THE FREE WORLD ARE ROOTING FOR YOU, LOVE."

Buckley rightly identified the importance of Thatcher's victory. "For over a generation we have been assaulted — castrated is probably closer to the right word — by the notion that socialism is the wave of the future." The arguments between the major parties in the West had almost invariably been disagreements over the pace of descent into one or another flavor of statism. It "has always been possible for the leftward party to say about the rightward party that its platform is roughly identical to the platform of the leftward party one or two elections back."

This was certainly true in the United States, though Buckley may have overstated things when he wrote that "Roosevelt would have considered the Republican Party platform of Richard Nixon as radical beyond the dreams of his brain-trusters."

What's indisputable, however, is that the Tories and the Republicans alike suffered from an excess of "me-tooism." From Thomas Dewey through Gerald Ford — minus Barry Goldwater's staggering (and staggeringly influential) defeat — Republicans put forward leaders who promised to do what liberals were doing, but in a more responsible way. The pattern was even worse in Britain, which had thrown out Winston Churchill, at least partly, for wanting to trim back the welfare state.

For decades, conservatism failed to offer an alternative. This was why economist Friedrich Hayek said he couldn't call himself a conservative. It has, he wrote, "invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing."

One reason for this tendency is that in democracies, politicians usually can't withstand the short-term backlash that comes with meaningful long-term free-market reforms. Thatcher was expected to follow the pattern. When that proved wrong and Thatcher showed she intended to make good on a lifetime of promises, the press demanded she make a "U-turn." She didn't. She explained in a defining speech in 1980, "The lady's not for turning." She had promised voters, to borrow a phrase from Goldwater, "a choice, not an echo." She delivered on it, and Britain is immeasurably better for it.

It's worth remembering that Thatcher did not destroy the British equivalent of what Americans call liberalism. She destroyed socialism, which was a thriving concern — at least intellectually — in Britain. When Labor decided to get serious about winning elections again, Tony Blair had to repudiate the party's century-long support for doctrinaire socialism and embrace the market. Soon, Bill Clinton followed suit, borrowing Blair's "third way" approach. Suddenly, liberals were playing the "me-too" game.

That's one reason the left still hates her so much — because she won, at least in her time.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
ElectionsPoliticsBritainRepublican PartyConservative Party (UK)CultureArts and Culture
  • Margaret Thatcher dies at 87; Britain's first female prime minister
    Margaret Thatcher dies at 87; Britain's first female prime minister

    Regarded by many as the country's most important peacetime leader of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain with a conservative free-market revolution. The 'Iron Lady' was known as much for her formidable persona as her polarizing policies.

  • Meryl Streep on Margaret Thatcher: 'A figure of awe'
    Meryl Streep on Margaret Thatcher: 'A figure of awe'

    Meryl Streep won an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in  the 2011 film “The Iron Lady,” and her performance will likely go down as the most enduring cinematic portrait of the former British prime minister. So after news broke Monday that Thatcher had passed away at age 87, Streep...

  • U.N. disabilities treaty deserves ratification
    U.N. disabilities treaty deserves ratification

    The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should not be controversial: It requires equal access for the disabled and bans discrimination against them in all countries that sign on. There is no question that the Senate should ratify it. The only issue is why it...

  • Congress can, and should, sort out the Internet's tax structure
    Congress can, and should, sort out the Internet's tax structure

    At the dawn of the broadband era, Congress recognized that the Internet was becoming so fundamental to communications and the economy that it barred states from taxing the services that enabled people to log on. But some anti-tax groups and online businesses have hijacked the "Don't...

  • Gov. Brown knows better than to let lobbyists pay for his Mexico trip
    Gov. Brown knows better than to let lobbyists pay for his Mexico trip

    Gov. Jerry Brown is on a four-day trip to Mexico City to talk to government officials there about trade and immigration issues. That's a reasonable thing for a California governor to do. Brown is not traveling alone: Nine administration officials and 15 legislators (some using campaign...

  • U.N. Human Rights Council's anti-Israel inquiry
    U.N. Human Rights Council's anti-Israel inquiry

    Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution, S-21, creating a "commission of inquiry" to investigate human rights violations in the Gaza war. Nowhere does the resolution mandate that the commission conduct a fair, impartial and balanced investigation....

  • Democrats' impeachment fixation
    Democrats' impeachment fixation

    "Sorry to email you late on a Friday, but I need your urgent support," Nancy Pelosi wrote me.

  • GM ignition switch scandal unlikely to spur safety reforms
    GM ignition switch scandal unlikely to spur safety reforms

    General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra has made several trips to testify before Congress, most recently this month, about her company's defective ignition switches. The biggest headline-grabbing moment was her apology for the company's apparent 10-year coverup of the lethal...

Comments
Loading