It’s Women’s History Month, so let’s take another look at the greatest woman of our time. We recently considered “There is No Alternative,” a book about Margaret Thatcher by Claire Berlinski, who did not know her. In the interest of gender fairness, we turn to Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady, by John Blundell, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, who did know Lady Thatcher. As he tells it, the “Iron Lady,” tag is somewhat incomplete.
Yes, it applies to the way she recovered the Falklands and evokes her role in the defeat of communism. Unfortunately, it does not convey her love of music and art. To those who know her, she is incapable of walking past an art gallery without going inside. Mr. Blundell has also collected stories that showcase her sense of humor. During her first cabinet stint, she obtained professional help on voice, tone, and eye contact. When a colleague commented on her new deep, sexy voice, she replied “What makes you think I was not sexy before?”
A person of good humor could easily have become embittered because Ted Heath, Tory prime minister at the time, put Margaret Thatcher at the end of the table, where he could not see her. Mr. Blundell also makes it clear that 1970’s Britain was not exactly a cheery place.
The unions picketed major ports and refineries, disrupting gasoline supplies and forcing stations to close. Ambulance drivers called strikes and refused to attend to 911 calls. Hospital support staff also went on strike. “If people died, so be it,” said one union man. Students had to join a campus student union, otherwise their degrees would not be conferred on graduation. Property taxes were going up 30-40 percent a year, and the left even proposed to nationalize undertakers.
“The whole culture was one of getting ahead by brute force rather than better serving your customer,” Mr. Blundell writes. “British trade unions were exempted from the Law of Tort. They were immune from the restraints of law.” They also resisted Margaret Thatcher’s reforms with savagery, what she called “rule by the mob.” So her success, and enduring sense of humor, must take into account the scale of the opposition, which included attempts on her life.
The struggle with the miners’ union was actual warfare, with the Soviet Union bankrolling the union. The Prime Minister also became the prime target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which murdered three of her Conservative colleagues, Anthony Berry, Ian Gow, and Airey Neave. Her narrowest escape occurred in October, 1984, when the IRA, which was getting money from Libya’s Col. Qaddafi, planted a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton during a Conservative Party conference. The explosion killed five people, and narrowly missed the Prime Minister. She finished the speech she had been working on when the bomb went off. “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,” she said.
That is some women’s history worth remembering. So is her 3-0 record in general elections. Margaret Thatcher never lost at the ballot box. Mr. Blundell is also helpful on her record of rescuing the economy, largely through privatization.
On her watch, some three million housing units moved from public to private hands, liberating people from serf-like conditions. Prices dropped and the quality of goods improved. There was less corruption, more innovation, better management, fewer strikes, and more openness. The UK is the only nation where even the smallest household can choose between competing natural gas and electricity suppliers. Now even leading Labour politicians claim to be Thatcherites, so she also won over the opposition.
In the interest of history, it might prove helpful to compare Margaret Thatcher to Barack Obama, who also takes over in difficult economic conditions but with starkly different ideas. When Margaret Thatcher first took office, union membership was decided by a voice vote, which subjected workers to coercion from union bosses. To halt that pressure, she proposed wider use of secret and postal ballots for all major union decisions.
Barack Obama wants to eliminate the secret ballot in favor of a “card check” system, which means, in effect, that the unions, not the workers, do the choosing. The president’s big-government, pro-spending policies strongly resemble the kind of policy that left Britain in a shambles. So it is highly unlikely that President Obama, for all his rhetoric of change and hope, can replicate Margaret Thatcher’s record of recovery and success.
“Carol,” Lady Thatcher once told her daughter, “I think my place in history is assured.” That is true. It is also more apparent every day that America will need its own Margaret Thatcher.