OpinionOp-Ed

Goldberg: What 'the Iron Lady' forged

PoliticsElectionsRepublican PartyBritainCultureArts and CultureConservative Party (UK)

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
PoliticsElectionsRepublican PartyBritainCultureArts and CultureConservative Party (UK)
  • Why many Californians see voting as a waste of time: It doesn't make a difference
    Why many Californians see voting as a waste of time: It doesn't make a difference

    Turnout in this year's state primary elections came in at a record low; only 1 out of 4 registered voters showed up at the polls. Given that dismal turnout, a package of bills just signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown makes sense.

  • Metro shouldn't play the name game
    Metro shouldn't play the name game

    How should Los Angeles say “thanks” to long-serving politicians who have done the people's business through good times and bad? When a fruit basket just isn't enough, the honorarium of choice for L.A. County supervisors and other local elected officials has been to have...

  • FCC has no business regulating the name of a football team
    FCC has no business regulating the name of a football team

    The Federal Communications Commission has been petitioned by an activist lawyer to effectively regulate the word “redskins” off the air. While this page has argued that the Washington Redskins football team should adopt a new name — the current one is racist — it...

  • Clear, thoughtful rules are needed for recordings by LAPD
    Clear, thoughtful rules are needed for recordings by LAPD

    The Los Angeles police sergeant who caused a controversy when he detained “Django Unchained” actress Daniele Watts in response to a 911 call last month has now publicly defended his decision to turn over an audio recording he made of the incident to the celebrity news site TMZ,...

  • Why the rule of law requires the bite of punishment
    Why the rule of law requires the bite of punishment

    Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads. Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s. A few years ago it was teen courts, then drug courts. The new fad is something called “evidence-based sentencing,” and it is both a...

  • Is feminism's current moment all slogan and no change?
    Is feminism's current moment all slogan and no change?

    Like the cicada, which lies dormant for 13 or 17 years and then suddenly makes a cacophonous comeback, feminism is having a moment. It's announcing itself on magazine covers, dominating discussions on culture blogs and, in one case, making itself known in huge, lighted letters spelling...

Comments
Loading