Developing into a “California conservative” at the beginning of the 21st century, it was challenging to find the ideal ideological role model in the public sphere. Sure, there were elder figures like John McCain or Colin Powell who had remarkable records of achievement. There were distant, historical figures like Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, leaders in times of crisis who I studied but had a hard time relating to in a time of plenty and relative security. There were public writers who were bold, clear, and intellectual. Peggy Noonan, George Will, and Thomas Sowell come to mind. But they were limited in reach to print media and Sunday shows. There were, however, two universally exalted figures in conservative circles. One, it goes without saying, was Ronald Reagan. The other, somewhat less deified figure: Baroness Margaret Thatcher.
With time, and, frankly, with the help of YouTube, I discovered the brilliance of Lady Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and the longest serving PM in the 20th century, who recently passed away in London.
Thatcher was different. Thatcher earned her own term, Thatcherism, not just because of her policies, but also because of her personal power while advocating for her (classically) liberal philosophy. Although I was born after she fell from power, after several years looking back at her speeches, interviews, and actions, I am struck by an unparalleled aura of raw strength that radiated from every part of her being.
With all the talk of how conservatives are engaging in a “War on Women,” the idea that a woman led the Conservatives may seem odd today. For Thatcher, however, her sex was not the issue. Her vision was. Through artful maneuvering, she rose from Education Minister to leader of the Tories in 1975. A few short years later, she moved into 10 Downing Street.
Thatcher’s indomitable will is widely viewed as both her most damaging flaw and greatest virtue. It endeared her to her allies, and further alienated her from her opponents. Thatcher’s steely resolve also set her apart from other leaders. She called herself a “conviction politician” rather than a “consensus politician,” although she did compromise on occasion. Some would charitably call her conviction stubbornness, evinced when she declared she was “extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.”
Perhaps nowadays, fighting for freedom around the world is a stale notion, but Thatcher was on the forefront of the battle against Communism in all its ugly forms, and championed freedom, both personal and economic, at home in Britain and past the Iron Curtain. She quickly embraced a title invented by a Russian reporter a year after she became the opposition leader, when she remarked, “Yes I am an iron lady… if that’s how [the Soviets] wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life.”
Why was Thatcher so determined, so stubborn in promoting her ideology? Part of it can be attributed to Britain’s parliamentary system, which gave her total control over the government as long as she remained leader of the majority and had the support of her lieutenants. I would argue that the parliamentary structure was built for Thatcher’s style of leadership. It did not make Thatcher, but rather enabled Thatcher to be the leader she was. After a lifetime observing politics, she knew what she thought, and if she could, she would implement her preferred policies. In 1968, even before she became party leader, observing weakness in many of Britain’s leaders, she warned that “There are dangers in consensus: it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything. … No great party can survive except on the basis of firm beliefs about what it wants to do.”
Twenty years later, in 1989, Thatcher’s tune changed little when she spoke ill of those who dither, who buckle at the ideological knees to keep avoid making enemies: “If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.” While Thatcher was being Thatcher, characteristically direct and caring little about offending others’ sensibilities, she raised an important issue lost today in popular culture.
We often hear calls for compromise for its own sake when politicians have major fundamental differences on policy. With large, ideology-‐based differences, as with health care, taxation, and regulatory policy, where the role of the federal government is what is really under debate, there should be a decently protracted, publicly argued battle where both sides take clear positions. The resulting legislation should be substantive, consistent, and understood by all parties. If policy is decided in a mostly party line vote, then so be it. Why vote for someone who says they believe a certain philosophy on government is morally superior if they abandon it?
Ultimately, what is most refreshing for me about Baroness Thatcher is her clarity, which, for a politician, requires both brains and courage. Thatcher refused to mince her words, and spoke boldly both while fighting for power, and while she held it. She made her principles crystal clear, and stuck by them. Because she was so direct, when voters went to the polls they knew exactly what kind of policies they were voting for or against. Conservatives won four consecutive elections after Thatcher took control of the party (every election, you could say, if you include Labor under Tony Blair). Thatcherism as an ideology, in one form or another, has dominated British politics ever since. Maybe that is because liberalism is inherently superior to what it replaced, but Thatcher nonetheless deserves credit for shifting the postwar paradigm toward it.
What I think Republicans, but also Democrats, should take away from Thatcher’s time in power is that whatever policies a party or politician supports, and whatever grand vision they have (assuming they have a vision), they should communicate it clearly, directly, and honestly. They should focus their campaigning on explaining what they believe is the best policy and why, rather than paint pictures with words, incite anger at “the other,” or talk about nothing, yet make it sound good. Since few politicians have the internal motivation to be clear and direct and honest, voters should demand those qualities.
Too often, politicians hide behind empty words and expressions in public, whether at a local event or a presidential debate. Some do so because they want to be liked. Others want power for its own sake, and will say or do anything to acquire it. Many are honest people, afraid to speak candidly in the age of YouTube and Politico, when a poorly chosen phrase spoken to a group of five people can cost five hundred thousand votes, waste millions of dollars and throw away years of preparation. Politicians’ lack of clarity is bad for voters and our political system, but it also sets a bad example for young people interested in politics. Anecdotally, it seems young people interested in politics (obviously no one at CMC) hesitate to speak their minds if it means the slightest disagreement could arise, almost as if someone with a notepad is transcribing their every word with the goal of misconstruing them 30 years hence.
Every man and woman who runs for office should have a vision as to what would make his or her constituents better off, and never shirk from declaring it. Aren’t one’s convictions worth a little tension? Either way, Thatcher had her vision, and she certainly expressed it. She would appreciate it if America’s politicians today followed her lead.
In terms of her directness, but in terms of her policy too, I feel I must end echoing The Economist, the true authority on Thatcher: “What the world [and the United States in particular] needs now is more Thatcherism, not less.”