Reflecting on Margaret Thatcher's achievements is a timely exercise because she tackled many of the problems we face today. The years before she came to power were dominated by economic anxiety, terrorism and saber-rattling. Society was polarized between the privileged and those dislocated by recession. New protest groups appeared on the political fringe because mainstream politicians didn't seem to have the answers. Many began to think debt, unemployment and international uncertainty were the 'new normal'.
In an era when every politician calls for change, Margaret Thatcher is shining example of how it is actually done. Of course the economy isn't the basket case that Britain's was in 1979, and different times call for different solutions. Her time in government was not easy. But in the end few disagreed with her chancellor when he said, 'the economy has been transformed. There is simply no other word for it'. She was only able to do it using a style of leadership that today's leaders could learn from.
Margaret Thatcher was more an expression of change than a symbol of it. No woman had ever led a political party, let alone the country. But she became the longest serving Prime Minister of the century with no more support from female voters than anyone else. Today's campaign consultants from both parties label the electorate by gender, age and ethnicity more than ever, because it makes it easier to package political benefits. Whoever offers the most wins. But when those expectations can't be met in government the result is debt and disillusionment with politics. Thatcher asked people to discard their labels, as she had, and the result was a renewed society.
It was only because she led by ideas instead of interests that her government was able to create dynamic change. She legislated against the militant unions who had been partners to government in the past but resisted modernization of industry. It was the same approach with the old boy network that controlled the market for company shares and capital. Contrast that with reforms in financial sector on both sides of the Atlantic since. They were practically written by lobbyists and then the preserved institutions that became 'too big to fail'. President Obama's health care legislation was also passed with the blessing of the insurance industry, and now premiums are increasing when we were told to expect the opposite. Thatcher knew you couldn't have real change with the same powerful interests calling the shots. So she followed her convictions to create an environment where industry was free to produce more, rather than expecting more political favors.
Margaret Thatcher's belief in enduring ideals made her a natural communicator. Many politicians can give a rousing speech with the help of an aide and the energy of their base. Thatcher's best words were her own, and it wasn't just at election time that she reminded voters of their place in history. She used candor to capture the essence of the moment at times of tragedy like the Lockerbie bombing and triumph in the Falklands. That gave her stature above the partisanship of daily politics that could preside over a platform of long term change.
She has been accused of being a divisive figure, but you don't win three consecutive election victories without winning over some of your opponents. Her most passionate supporters were middle class suburbanites who could invest in privatized industry because small investors were given priority. Today's politicians tend to reward their supporters at the top and the bottom of the income scale first, with high end tax cuts and welfare benefits. In social policy Margaret Thatcher stood for family values but sold them as a way of making society more cohesive, rather than standing on religious doctrine. Like Ronald Reagan, she was more pragmatic and inclusive than she is generally given credit for.
Most of all, Margaret Thatcher brought sweeping change because she was a radical, albeit in the cause of very old ideas. You can trace her family history and beliefs in egalitarianism and self-reliance back to the republican emigrant culture that created the United States. She loved America, praising its exceptional nature, 'Europe will never be like America. Europe is the product of history, America is the product of philosophy'. She looked across the Atlantic for inspiration because she saw a vision for her country beyond established wealth and common envy. Today, perhaps we can look to her for the same.