British commentator Theodore Dalrymple asked recently on Law and Liberty: “Was Margaret Thatcher’s legacy one of free markets, of laissez faire?” He professed himself “not so sure.”
The former British prime minister, argued Dalrymple, did little to roll back the frontiers of the State during her 11-and-a-half years in office:
Mrs. Thatcher was loved and hated not so much because she changed things, but because she said she wanted to. . . . My impression is that her effect, where it was long-lasting, was predominantly negative.
I have long admired Mr. Dalrymple’s punchy, prescient and always entertaining articles, frequently to be found in the pages of The Spectator, but I beg to differ with his assessment of Thatcher’s legacy. My former boss (I worked for her from 2000 to 2002 in her private office) was someone who not only preached a message of freedom and liberty, but, unlike most politicians today, actually put it into practice. The Thatcher years immeasurably changed Britain, and the world, for the better.
It is all too easy to forget the perilous state that Great Britain found itself in four decades ago, before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister at the end of the 1970s. With good reason, Britain was dubbed “the sick country of Europe,” a phrase coined by a horrified Wall Street Journal. Economists widely referred to “the British disease” as a case study of economic self-destruction. As the Iron Lady herself put it, the Socialist governments of the 1970s had been “intent on distributing wealth instead of creating it, and without anything to distribute.”
The heart of a once-mighty global empire had been reduced to going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, in an act of abject humiliation. In 1979, British GDP per capita languished at seventh place out of nine members of the European Economic Community. Britain’s output per head was 50 percent lower than that of France or Germany, hardly surprising considering it had the highest tax rate in the EEC. When Thatcher took over the helm of Downing Street from Labour Party leader James Callaghan, the United Kingdom was the equivalent in economic terms of Greece or Spain today. It was officially classified “a less prosperous country,” or LPC, at the annual meeting of the European Council in 1979.
The transformation of Britain in the 1980s under three terms of the Thatcher government was simply breathtaking. By cutting taxes and taking an axe to red tape, Thatcher’s administration helped create 10,000 new small businesses in its first four years alone, with Britain enjoying its longest sustained period of growth since the Second World War in the period between 1980 and 1987. She faced down the powerful, Marxist-dominated trade unions, whose deeply anti-capitalist mindset coupled with entrenched tactics of intimidation had helped suffocate economic freedom for a decade.
During that decade, while in opposition, Thatcher had vowed to cut the size of big government. Once elected, she took action, reducing the number of civil servants from 732,000 to 567,000 in her first two terms of office. She launched a wave of privatizations, handing 18 major state-run enterprises over to the British people, millions of whom bought shares in the new, privately-run companies such as British Gas and British Telecom. In addition, her government introduced a series of financial reforms that enabled the City of London to regain its position as a preeminent world financial center.
Margaret Thatcher emphatically demonstrated how one individual can make a huge difference in steering the destiny of a nation. As she put it herself: “We are not bound to an irrevocable decline. We see nothing as inevitable. Men can still shape history.”
Britain today is in a far stronger position than it was when the Socialists wreaked havoc in the 1970s. Its economic growth rate today outpaces that of Germany, France, and all of Europe’s major economies. It is thanks to Mrs. Thatcher that Britain’s unions no longer wield the power to hold the country for ransom, that the State no longer monopolizes the levers of industry, and that a significant majority of Britons, after the sale of millions of Council-owned properties, own their own homes.
Thatcher gave Britain back its self-confidence, so badly bruised in the aftermath of decades of economic mismanagement and post-imperial decline. At home and abroad, she fought for and made great strides in the advance of freedom. Dalrymple omits the Iron Lady’s foreign policy achievements, which were many, from the liberation of the Falkland Islands to the rebuilding of the Anglo-American special relationship so essential to defending the free world.
Thatcherism, too, had an effect on this side of the Atlantic. It inspired, and was instrumental in shaping, many of the free-market reforms launched during the Reagan revolution. And it was because of the strength of her courage and conviction, and her partnership with Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, that tens of millions of people today enjoy the fruits of liberty in Eastern and Central Europe instead of living under the oppressive boot of Moscow.
Margaret Thatcher was in every sense of the word a freedom fighter, a born leader who powerfully implemented the very principles she lived by herself.
Additional Resources: Liberty Law Talk with Robin Harris, former speechwriter and advisor to Margaret Thatcher, on her commitment to freedom and her legacy.