Europe

Our Fight Now Isn't the One Thatcher Had Then


Police and pickets struggle and fight after a fence collapsed outside the Coal Board area headquarters on March 27, 1984, in Doncaster, England

Photograph by AFP via Getty Images

Police and pickets struggle and fight after a fence collapsed outside the Coal Board area headquarters on March 27, 1984, in Doncaster, England

It is right to praise the dead. Margaret Thatcher was a “huge figure on the world stage,” said Ed Miliband today. He leads Britain’s Labour Party, which lost to Thatcher in the decade of the 1980s and had to move in her direction to win again. Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Republican Sinn Fein, was not so gracious. She “did great hurt to the Irish,” Adams wrote today. In Mannheim, Germany, Wolfgang Schäuble said she was a great woman. He was an architect of Germany’s reunification after 1989, a move Thatcher opposed. It is right to praise the dead.

Yet it is tempting to pick up their banner and keep fighting. Here we should check ourselves, lest we fight the wrong fight. Or, rather, an old fight. Before she became prime minister, Thatcher read Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Hayek worried that the social states of postwar Europe would lead to what he called a “serfdom.” Friedman believed that an active—meaning sometimes loose—monetary policy would prove to be ultimately ineffective. In the U.K. in the 1970s, a country where John Maynard Keynes cast a longer shadow than any postwar prime minister, these were novel and useful ideas.

When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, trade unions were strong enough in the U.K. to determine party leaders. We speak loosely now of “nationalization,” but industry then in the U.K.—air travel, telecommunications, gas—was actually nationalized. Arthur Scargill, head of Britain’s coal miners’ union at the time, was not a “Marxist” but actually a Marxist. You do not have to take a position on Thatcher’s privatizations in Britain or her relationship with Britain’s left, whom she obliquely called “the enemy within,” to know that she was at the very least on one side of the appropriate fight for her time.

She remains a potent figure in America. Like the man she called “Ronnie,” her rhetoric was even less nuanced than her policies. Sarah Palin tried to meet with her, once, to be seen touching her hem. This had less to do with the actual history of Thatcher than with our memory of her: funny, pearled, and pursed, and so strong it was not her supporters, but the Soviets who called her “Iron Lady.”

It’s easy here in America, removed from the bitterness of fathers in Ulster and Britain’s industrial north, to know what to do with her memory. Everyone loves a fighter. It’s harder to know what lessons to draw from her history. Labor has little pull today in the U.S. Actual Marxists are rare curiosities; you’d sooner put them in a zoo to preserve them than worry they might overrun you. And nationalization, well, it’s not happening in America. The Affordable Care Act did not nationalize health care; it scratched at the edges of a system of private hospitals and private insurance. What the Obama administration pulled off in Detroit was a bailout, not a takeover.

Again, you could argue that these were terrible ideas. You can’t, however, imagine what Margaret Thatcher would have done about them, because Margaret Thatcher never did anything about them. They were not what she faced in 1979. Her problems then are not ours now. Government is not the problem in America. The way government and industries interact to preserve incumbent politicians and powerful companies is the problem. The enemy of free, fair, competitive markets is not a well-meaning bunch of socialists who would make us into serfs. It is capitalists, who have become experts in using government regulation to preserve subsidies and hamstring startups.

What would Thatcher have to say about the way senators in America bowed and scraped to praise Jamie Dimon when he appeared before them? We don’t know. Because when she pushed to scrap regulations in the City of London, finance was not then what it has become now. Her set of solutions—again, agree or disagree—no longer match our set of problems. Bury her with military honors in St. Paul’s. Laugh about how “the lady is not for turning.” And pick up a new flag.

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Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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