Margaret Thatcher is an extremely unlikely figure to be setting records in electability, as she has just done by winning a third consecutive term as prime minister of Great Britain. For one thing, she simply isn't very popular, in the sense that Americans apply that word to presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Thatcher is a hard, demanding, relentless person, humorless except when she's publicly making fun of the people who work for her, most of whom don't even pretend to like her. Polls show that her only real fans, in a reversal of the American gender gap, are low-middle-class women who admire the fierceness with which she embraces the bourgeois virtues.
It's not just that her personality is unpopular; her policies are, too. Thatcher is a true austerity politician, much closer to Robert Taft than to Ronald Reagan. She has gotten a lot of publicity here for cutting taxes, but people forget that immediately on taking office, she raised taxes. Today the British budget deficit is infinitesimal, because Thatcher believes that the government is like a household and has a moral responsibility to keep its accounts in balance.
When Reagan attacks big government and the welfare state, he is hardly bucking the national consensus. In Britain, though, the welfare state is like unto mom and apple pie. The middle class benefits from it and, unlike the middle class here, is willing to admit this to itself: more than 90 percent of the population participates in the National Health system, and the government pays for virtually all of higher education, including full tuition and, in most cases, living stipends for the children of the upper class who study at Oxford and Cambridge.
Britain is also quite unenthusiastic about the idea of hard work, bootstrap-pulling, and getting rich, which has such a strong hold on the imagination here. The first Parliamentary vote Thatcher lost in nine years as prime minister was on a bill to allow stores to stay open on Sundays. Last year I interviewed Jeffrey Archer, then (before a sex scandal) the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and a man widely despised because he constantly celebrated American free enterprise. He told me he wished he'd been born in America -- as long as his birthplace had been Virginia or Boston. "One wouldn't want to be born in Pittsburgh," he said, with the expression of someone who's just eaten a spoiled oyster.
Thatcher's foreign policy is no great plus in Britain -- it's too pro-American. She won with unemployment in the double digits, in a country where unemployment is viewed as morally wrong much more than it is here. She was clearly inferior in television skills during this last campaign, which Walter Mondale in 1984 said would be a fatal weakness for any American presidential candidate. So what's her secret?
In part Thatcher is still reaping benefits from the disarray into which the Labor Party fell in the '70s and, especially, in the early '80s when its leader was Michael Foot. Among the priceless legacies to Thatcher from this period are the Social Democratic Party, which draws white-collar liberals' votes from Labor, and Labor's unpopular nuclear policy, which is pretty close to unilateral disarmament.
Demographics have helped Thatcher, too, maybe more than any other extrinsic factor. Labor is a strongly class-based, even union-based, party; as the British economy shifts from manufacturing to services (and the British population moves out of the old industrial cities of the North), its constituency has been badly eroded. Every time somebody stops wearing a blue collar in Britain, it seems to mean a new vote for the Tories. Some of Thatcher's most loyal voters are the residents of the public housing units she has privatized, because now they think of themselves as middle-class homeowners, and in Britain, that almost automatically means Conservative too. Even while declining in economic power relative to the rest of the world in the years since World War II, Britain, thanks largely to the Labor Party's policies, has dramatically increased the average person's standard of living -- and with it the core Tory vote.
Besides these rational reasons for Thatcher's success, though, there is also her sheer force of will, which seems equally important. She has a taste for relentless low-level political combat -- for standing up in Parliament and answering the same derisive question from Labor in exactly the same way every week for a decade -- that is simply unmatched in British politics. It is unusually easy in laid-back England for workaholics to rise to the top, even though the British hate workaholics -- who's willing to put in the effort to stop them? Given the nature of the presidential nominating process in this country, pure stubbornness ought not be dismissed here, either, as an important factor in the making of heads of state.
The irony of Thatcher's formidability is that there are very few Thatcherites besides her, because she doesn't need them. If she is ever somehow wrestled down, no one should be surprised if England promptly sets off in the opposite direction. A strong leader whose strength resides mainly in his or her self usually doesn't leave behind much of a political dynasty.
The writer is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.