Like Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher leaves behind some wonderful quotes. Today and for several days, I suspect, they’ll be all over print, TV and online coverage of her passing. Many conservatives have a favorite (“The lady’s not for turning” or “The problem with socialism is that you run out of other people’s money to spend”).
Mine, however, relates not only to her ideology but to her insight into politics:
My policies are based not on some economics theory but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.
She understood the average voter because she identified with them; she was one of them (well, before becoming the leading British politician of her day).
She also conveyed in that quote how conservatism, for all its intellectual presumption and its gallery of big thinkers, is really built on common sense and the same values that sustain most middle-class people. If you didn’t live the values conservatives preach (personal responsibility, respect for property, willingness to take calculated risk, fiscal prudence), you’d be a basket case. So too with countries.
What she brought to politics after decades of British socialism was the complete absence of victimhood. Yes, life can be unfair, but we soldier on. And if the state had been unfair — rewarding unions with lavish benefits and constricting business, confiscatory tax rates, etc. — well then, it was her job to get rid of that. It’s the “nobody promised you anything” philosophy that is all too absent in contemporary, consumer-driven culture.
For politicians, especially American conservatives, Thatcher also reminds one to speak simply but not simplistically. Politicians anxious to convert their job into an exalted profession throw around a lot of political jargon and legislative detail. It is as off-putting as it is unnecessary. The essential building blocks of any viable political agenda have to be explained in terms that go beyond political minutiae and that comport with citizens’ everyday experiences. That is true even in foreign policy. (Stand by your friends, and stand up to bullies.)
It is also the case that she never complained about the British voter. You’ll find no speeches deploring the entitlement mentality or bemoaning the uninformed and dependent electorate. She aimed high. She knew leadership based on sound principles, properly provided and effectively conveyed, was all Britain needed. That’s some sound advice for conservatives who have been whining about the American electorate’s sloth.
American conservatives have become altogether too dogmatic and too literal in their reverence for Ronald Reagan, as if his policies for a given time were the essence of, rather than one era’s expression of, conservatism. (It would be as if the lesson to be drawn from Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy was never to allow Argentina to attack an island you own.) The important take-away from Thatcher (and from Reagan) is that freedom in all its forms — economic, political and international — are dependent on one another and must be defended to preserve a prosperous, decent and safe society. Or as she put it at an event in 1976, “Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you tonight in my … chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world. Me? A Cold War warrior? … Well, yes — if that is how they wish to interpret my defense of values of freedoms fundamental to our way of life.”
If American conservatives can learn anything from Thatcher (aside from high style, wit and courage), it is that politics is about ordinary people’s lives and must draw on their life experience. Making conservatism into a lace doily, ever so intricate, old-fashioned and frail, is a mistake. Remembering the big picture — defense of freedoms fundamental to our way of life — is what it is really about.