Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism

Stephen Davies

July 1, 1993

Most politicians enjoy a brief moment in the public eye and then are gone, so soon forgotten that within ten years few can remember what they did or what they stood for. Some however make such a deep impression, for good or ill, that they will remain alive in the popular memory long after their career is over, even after their death. Margaret Thatcher is one of these.

By any standard Margaret Thatcher is an extraordinary politician. During her period as Prime Minister she had a profound and permanent impact on British politics. She changed the rules of political debate, transformed her own party, and altered and amended aspects of British life which had seemed fixed and permanent. Love her or hate her, no one could be indifferent to her. No one could mistake what she believed in and what she stood for. A “conviction politician,” she had the rare distinction of having an ideology named after her–Thatcherism.

Today it is easy to forget how extraordinary her career and achievements have been. For a woman to become the leader of the Conservative party and then Prime Minister was unthinkable before she did it. More important, she challenged, and changed the definition of what was politically feasible, not only in Britain, but around the world. Pundits could see no future for a leader who so sharply questioned the conventional wisdom. When she became a party leader, the Economist, later one of her warmest admirers, declared that the Conservatives could be condemning themselves to years in the political wilderness. How differently things turned out! By confronting established institutions and set ideas of what was proper and possible, she was able both to bring about radical change and to change the terms of political debate. The power of trades unions, which had so dominated British political life before 1979, was sharply curtailed. The privatization of state owned industries
, unthinkable before, became commonplace and has now been imitated all over the world. This all went with unprecedented political success. Elected in 1979 with the biggest switch in votes since 1945, she went on to win two further general elections by landslide margins. In fact she never lost an election. A radical in a conservative party, she was ejected by her own MPs when her radicalism and willingness to confront the accepted beliefs of the elite became too much for them.

Indeed, the very qualities which brought her success and then led to her fall mean that Margaret Thatcher is still a relevant and important figure. Her standing and her ability to present the views and beliefs of ordinary people as opposed to those of a detached elite mean that her words and arguments are still listened to. Over the Maastricht Treaty and the future of Europe–the issue that more than anything else led to her ejection from office–her critique of the project (obvious but never openly admitted) of the creation of a federal and enclosed European state, has articulated the fears of ordinary people, against the wishes of the elite and the leadership of both main parties who want to avoid a debate at almost any cost. Other qualities which give her a continued relevance are her interest in ideas, an unusual feature in a politician, and above all her capacity to get to the nub of an issue and face up to tough decisions. Nowhere was this clearer than over Bosnia where h
er dramatic and forceful interventions, in the form of an electrifying series of television interviews, highlighted the issues at stake and exposed the handwringing equivocation and moral cowardice of the official “line”. Would this have been put so forcefully or received such attention if it had not been Margaret Thatcher who was speaking?

When the history of the twentieth century is written Margaret Thatcher is sure to have a prominent place. In the collapse of communism and the creation of what the late Peter Jenkins has called the “post socialist era,” she has played a major part. However, right now she is still very much alive, still very active, and still fighting for her convictions and what she believes to be right.

Stephen Davies is Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, England. He is co-editor of A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought and is author of the forthcoming, Private Goods, Public Benefit: The Voluntary Supply of “Public Goods.”