Margaret Thatcher & the Revival of the West

Her real legacy.

By Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States
From the May 19, 1989, issue of National Review

Editor's note: One billboard in Britain this election day has Conservative William Hague drawn with Margaret Thatcher-like hair. The words: "Be afraid. Be very afraid." And so NRO goes to Ronald Reagan for a more accurate take on Lady Thatcher from an article the president wrote in a May 1989 issue of National Review.

Some years ago, while I was still Governor of California, I was invited to address a large meeting of business leaders in London. Upon arrival, I met another American and longtime friend, the late Justin Dart.

The British Conservative Party had just elected Margaret Thatcher Leader of the Party. She was the first woman to hold that position and, if the Conservative Party actually won an election, she would automatically become Prime Minister. That, too, would be a first.

Justin knew the Thatchers and arranged a meeting for me with the new Party Leader. I shall be forever grateful. We found there were great areas of agreement on the economy and government's proper role with regard to the private sector. That first meeting in her office lasted the better part of an hour and a half.

That evening I was the guest at a reception. One gentleman had learned of my morning visit and asked: "How did you like our Lady Thatcher?" I told him how greatly impressed I was and said, "I believe she'd make a magnificent Prime Minister." He replied, "Oh my dear fellow -- a woman Prime Minister?" His tone suggested he believed the idea unthinkable. I couldn't resist reminding him that "England had a Queen named Victoria once who did rather well." He said, "By Jove, I'd forgotten all about that."

Well, Margaret Thatcher has now been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for ten years. She is respected by all the Heads of State and Government who have had any contact with her. She has brought great improvement in England's economy and returned to private ownership businesses and industries that had been taken over by government. It is a remarkable achievement.

Looking back to the late 1970s, we recall it as a depressing period economically. In America there were gas lines, high inflation, rocketing interest rates, and some fellow talking about a "malaise." The "misery index" reached an all-time high. But the situation in Europe, particularly in Britain, was even worse than our own. What we called the misery index they called "the British Disease": a combination of zero growth and high inflation, which in one year reached over 25 percent. Still worse, after almost forty years of socialism, the habits of inefficiency on the factory floor and lack of enterprise in the executive suite had become deeply ingrained. The British spirit of enterprise, which had transformed half the world in Queen Victoria's day, seemed to have been put to sleep.

Margaret Thatcher changed all that. She demonstrated two great qualities. The first was that she had thought seriously about how to revive the British economy and entered office with a clear set of policies to do so. She brought down inflation by controlling the money supply, and she began removing the controls, subsidies, and regulations that kept business lazy. Her second great quality was the true grit of a true Brit (or perhaps I should say, of a true-blue Brit). We both realized that our policies wouldn't solve such deep-rooted problems overnight. The first effects, in the world recession of 1981-82, were painful. I remember meeting her in Washington at a time when people in both our countries were calling for a change of course. She never wavered. And she was proved right by events. Britain today is enjoying an unprecedented economic recovery -- one as long as our own. British businesses, woken from the long sleep of socialism, are our feisty competitors in world markets. And, finally, Margaret Thatcher has begun to dismantle the undergirding of socialism itself by privatizing large nationalized industries like steel and airlines. Just as I would claim modestly that our tax cuts of 1981 have stimulated a wave of tax cutting around the world, so Margaret Thatcher's privatization program has been imitated as far afield as Turkey and New Zealand. We could do with a little more of it in the United States.

As a result, Margaret has brought about a resurgence of those things Great Britain always stood for. Never was this more evident than in her immediate response when Britain's sovereignty over the Falklands was challenged. We used our good offices to try to get a peaceful solution on which all sides could agree. But it was always clear to me that if such a settlement wasn't available, then the British would fight. I knew Margaret's strength of determination by then; others maybe did not.

That determination was never more valuable than when NATO decided to install intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20s. I had offered the zero-zero option of withdrawing the missiles on both sides. Yet when the Soviets refused and walked out of the Geneva conference, it was we who were denounced as warmongers by the so-called peace movement. All over Europe the peace marchers demonstrated to prevent Western missiles from being installed for their defense, but they were silent about the Soviet missiles targeted against them! Again, in the face of these demonstrations, Margaret never wavered. Western Europe stood firm. We installed the missiles -- and the Soviets, under the new leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, returned to the bargaining table three years later to negotiate the INF Treaty withdrawing both sets of missiles. I believe that historians will see that as one of the great turning points in the postwar world. It could not have been achieved without the endurance and courage of leaders like Margaret Thatcher. Once again the people of the "right little, tight little isle" are living those words: "There'll always be an England / And England shall be free, / If England means as much to you / As England means to me."

With all her strength, Margaret Thatcher is still a lady. There is an attractive humanness to her. Our annual "Economic Summits" are meetings of the seven Heads of government -- the United States, Canada, France, Italy, West Germany, Japan, and the United States. The meetings rotate, with each member country hosting the Summit in turn. The Head of Government of the host country chairs the meeting.

A few years ago, when the Summit was in England with Margaret presiding, a Head of Government who is no longer holding office (and I won't name him) launched a veritable tirade at the chair. He claimed that the meeting was not being run in a democratic manner, that the chair was dictatorial, etc. He gave no illustrations or examples to support these charges. Margaret let him have his say and then continued with the business before the meeting. She remained cool and made no effort to respond to the charges.

When the meeting ended I caught up with Margaret. I told her what I thought of the charges he had made, that he was really out of line and had no business or right to do what he'd done. Her quiet response was, "Women know when men are being childish."

Now I find that I've been using Margaret's first name. I think I should explain that first names are the rule in our Economic Summits. It's amazing the difference it makes in sessions of this kind to be on a first name basis rather than using formal titles. I have reason to believe this was brought about by Prime Minister Thatcher.

Personal relations matter more in international affairs than the historians would have us believe. Of course, nations will follow their overriding interests on the great issues regardless, but there are many important occasions when the trust built up over several years of contacts makes a real difference. I found it personally advantageous to have a friend as well as an ally in Downing Street. Margaret was always frank and forthright in her dealings with us. Generally, she and I agreed with each other. I was grateful to have her moral and material backing when we decided that we would have to bomb terrorist targets in Libya in order to protect out forces in Europe and Americans around the world against state-sponsored terrorism. Whether she agreed or not, however, I knew that her advice came from someone who was a friend of the American people and who shared the same basic outlook. We place the same high value on freedom. We were fortunate in that, sharing the same outlook, we were elected at time when opportunities were opening up for extending our freedom to other countries -- to many Third World countries, to Afghanistan, to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union itself.

When it was our turn to host the Summit, we decided to hold the meetings in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is a city that has been preserved as it was when Virginia was a British colony. It has become a historical showplace.

Customarily the Economic Summits open with an informal dinner for just the seven members plus the representative of the European Community. We held this dinner in what had been the British Governor General's home. Before general conversation started, I was going to address Margaret and say, "Margaret, if one of your predecessors had been a little more clever, you would have been the hostess at this meeting." Well, I started, "Margaret, if one of your predecessors had been a little more clever" -- and that's as far as I got. She quietly interrupted me and said, "Yes, I know, I would have been hosting this gathering."

Margaret Thatcher -- this great lady has not only served her country well, she has served the free world well. She is truly a great statesman. So much so that I'll correct what I just said: She is a great stateswoman holding her own among all the statesmen of the world.