Thatcher closes her office — and an era
By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.
It is more than a decade since Margaret Thatcher suffered a number of small strokes that left her unable to speak at will. Continuing ill health means she has not been seen in public for a long while. She was absent from the 85th birthday party thrown for her in 10 Downing Street by David Cameron in October. She missed Prince William’s wedding in April and the unveiling on July 4 of the statue in London to her friend Ronald Reagan. She suffers, like Reagan, from severe memory loss. Her health has deteriorated to such an extent that her failure to see visiting American conservatives like Sarah Palin has led to embarrassing stories, so her small political office of young Conservatives has decided to disband. With its dispersal, the vast personal contribution to political life of the most dynamic prime minister of the second half of the twentieth century has come to an end.
She has left a profound legacy. At the height of her powers she was unassailable at home and formidable abroad, and in her wake all parties were obliged to adopt the logic of her policies. Tony Blair openly embraced her ideas and Gordon Brown fêted her in Downing Street. Thatcherism persists. Many of her arguments for a reduced role for government are being pursued by the Cameron coalition under the guise of austerity. But Thatcherism without Thatcher, like Reaganism without Reagan, is a markedly different proposition from when the two of them combined so effectively.
It is never easy to find a replacement for a charismatic leader. It would be folly to look for the next Franklin Roosevelt or a Winston Churchill for our times. Great men and women cannot be summoned, they emerge. Yet ever since the demise of Reagan and the ousting of Thatcher by her Cabinet, conservatives have been in search of paragons to take their place.
The pair were quite different, he charming, amenable and affable, she spikey, acerbic and combative, but both on their different paths discovered what they believed to be an elemental truth: that the free market was the key to wealth, happiness and self fulfilment. Unlike their conservative predecessors, whose understanding of politics entailed ducking and weaving around issues as they arose, Reagan and Thatcher both saw the big picture and enjoyed a simple view of how the world worked. Both felt that to get things done they should restrict their aims to no more than could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was that narrow focus that made them so effectual. They preached the doctrine of no compromise, with Thatcher famously declaring “The lady’s not for turning,” but behind closed doors they were prepared to give ground to make things happen.
They left lasting memories of what could be achieved if only the political will were present. Their inheritance, however, has been cursed by their singular accomplishment: the introduction into parties that had been content with winning elections and retaining power at any cost an overriding ideology by which everything and everyone should be measured. Both Republicans and to a lesser extent British Tories now find themselves the owners of an unbending dogma that will grant few concessions. Tories only abandoned their devotion to Thatcherite ideological purity when three leaders in a row who preached the faith – Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague and Michael Howard – failed to be elected.
The Republican Party finds itself in a bind. Those who seem most capable of endearing themselves to independent voters are deemed by the rank and file to have sold out even before they start. Those who recite the free market, small government, libertarian mantra and evoke the name Reagan as a totem too often fail to grasp perhaps the most important aspect of the most extraordinary Republican retail politician of recent times: his likeability.
Where Reagan charmed the middle ground with homespun wisdom, avuncular epithets, and an endless diet of one-line jokes – who can forget the way he dismissed fears he was too old to be president with, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” – his successors can appear hamstrung by their almost willful ignorance, unnecessarily contemptuous of those with whom they disagree, and unwitting captives of a sect-like dogma. If they were serious about entering the popularity contest that is electoral politics, they would do well to echo the words of Disney’s Thumper, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
In the meantime it is President Obama who has raised the ghost of the Gipper. Looking back at the Democratic primaries, it was his understanding that reaching out to the spirit of Reagan would show him in a good light, and Hillary Clinton’s reflexive disdain that made her seem overly partisan, that proved a turning point in his electability. In the last week he has three times introduced the name of Reagan to the debt ceiling talks: taunting his opponents that Reagan, faced with such intransigence, would have walked away from the table; pointing out that Reagan raised the ceiling without blinking 18 times in eight years; and quoting Reagan on raising taxes: “Would you rather reduce deficits and interest rates by raising revenue from those who are not now paying their fair share, or would you rather accept larger budget deficits, higher interest rates, and higher unemployment?” Reagan would have had a ready riposte for such bare-faced impertinence, but his aspirant successors were once more left speechless, jokeless and charmless.
Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W.W.Norton in October. To read an extract, access https://sites.google.com/site/wapshottke yneshayek/.
PHOTO: Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves from her front doorstep as she returns home after leaving hospital, in London November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Winning