April 8, 2013

“UNLESS WE change our ways and our direction, our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mists of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past.” Margaret Thatcher, never given to understatement, presented that grim vision for Britain in 1979, the year she became prime minister.

Then, for the next 11½ years — almost as long as three U.S. presidential terms — she worked with fierce determination and unrelenting stubbornness to dispel it. By the time she left office, reluctantly, in 1990, there was not much talk anymore of Britain’s inexorable decline. Ms. Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, had changed not only her country’s direction but also its standing in the world. She continued to be passionately detested by some and admired and respected by others long after she left office, and her record will be debated for decades — or centuries. What is hardly debatable is the proposition that she was, in every sense of the word, a leader.

Margaret Thatcher was a new kind of Conservative in British politics, a true-believing, Friedrich von Hayek-quoting enemy of what she saw as the excesses of the welfare state, of the unions that seemed to run it and of the mass of socialist encrustations that had formed on the Labor Party’s left wing after World War II. She thought statism was crushing the nation’s economy, destroying the morale of its people and rapidly diminishing its standing in the world. Apparently a good many Britons agreed with her, though not necessarily with her fervent embrace of the total conservative ideology. The country was ready for a break with the postwar past, and Ms. Thatcher’s party had the good sense to see in her the forcefulness, conviction and eloquence that could bring it off.

Ms. Thatcher’s great domestic battles as prime minister were waged against the institutional left and its supporters among the British intelligentsia, which meant, of course, that they were extremely entertaining. They were fought on the same issue that divides Europeans to this day: When does the people’s demand for security become so all-consuming that it overtaxes the economy, saps initiative and buries the state under a mountain of debt? She worked for deregulation, privatization of state enterprises, tax changes and other domestic reforms she felt were desperately needed, many of which put real hardship on the country’s poor, at least in the short term.

But outside Britain she will be remembered primarily as a world figure. She strengthened Britain’s ties with the United States, bolstered its military, supported the placement of intermediate-range missiles in Europe (an extremely controversial move at the time) and spoke out with undiplomatic boldness when she took offense at some countries’ actions. She saw a great divide between freedom and the various forms of tyranny in the world, and she made it clear, always, which side she was on. She voiced harsh criticism of the the Soviet Union but also, like her good friend President Ronald Reagan, moved to engage its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

She made her name in the world a few years into her first term of office, when the military government in Argentina sought to whip up popular support by invading the nearby Falkland Islands. It was a largely unpopulated place, but those who did inhabit it had no desire to live under the Argentine regime of the time, and Ms. Thatcher had no intention of letting the invasion stand. Against the advice of many, she ordered a military invasion of the Falklands and retook the islands. Eight years later, after another act of aggression in another part of the world, she reinforced President George H.W. Bush’s resolve to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait.

Ms. Thatcher, who was raised in the family apartment over her father’s grocery store in Lincolnshire, and who thought that everyday upbringing was an ideal preparation for political life, officially became a lady (a baroness) after she left office. She was pushed out by divisions within her party on several issues, the most important being the rapid pace of European integration, of which she was skeptical. For some years afterward, she continued to write, speak and agitate. The first woman to serve as Britain’s prime minister, she held the post longer than anyone else in the 20th century, and she might have held it even longer, had she been a bit more flexible. But then of course she wouldn’t have been Maggie Thatcher.

“I can’t bear Britain in decline, I just can’t,” she said in an interview shortly before her election as prime minister 32 years ago. She did what she thought necessary to stop that decline, and she didn’t really seem to have much worry about what anyone else thought of it. Her toughness in negotiation exasperated and even enraged adversaries. “I’m extraordinarily patient,” she once told an interviewer, “provided I get my own way in the end.”

A Lincolnshire grocer’s daughter, she managed to follow her own path and bring much of her nation along with her.

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