“The Iron Lady”

By Peter Galuszka

“The Iron Lady,” a biopic starring Meryl Streep, has brought fresh attention to the policies and philosophies of Margaret Thatcher, the ground-breaking leader who served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister for 11 years – from 1979 to 1990.

Always controversial, Thatcher pioneered much of the conservative framework still in play today, such as privatizing state-owned companies, bashing labor unions, cutting budgets, pushing for flat taxes payable at equal rates by rich and poor and promoting the idea of individual opportunity as a national driver.

As we now see two decades later, while initially successful, a lot of Thatcherism turned out to be bunk and we are suffering for it now. That said,  I have to admit that Thatcher is a fascinating personality.

My own involvement came in 1987 when I was a magazine correspondent in Moscow. She was visiting Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader and man she could “do business with.” She and Ronald Reagan set up the policies that helped lead to the transition of the Soviet Union although neither should get too much credit for destroying that Communist-run state. The real cause of death was decades of internal rot, but that’s another subject.

When Thatcher walked up to the podium at the Foreign Ministry press center on the Garden Ring Road in downtown Moscow, the air practically went electric. She was a truly stunning presence. Her direct manner of speech in her high-pitched voice had the audience riveted. She answered questions with great speed and wit. She was a crystallographer by training but had a natural sense of politics and theater.

Reagan, whom I also heard in Moscow,  seemed like a purely stage-managed Hollywood production.  He entered the stage with a friendly wave and a stunning brown suit, but he seemed extraordinarily simple-minded, as if he didn’t really understand what was going on and was reading from a very good TelePrompter.

Thatcher, to be sure, had plenty of enemies. She came to power when the U.K. was in a recession far worse than the one the U.S. has recently endured. When I visited the West Midlands in the early 1980s, British  television news was a steady stream of job cuts.  She beat back union and government control that had dominated the economy since World War II and with great fanfare privatized a few big, government-controlled corporations. She led the Brits in their pathetic war with Argentina over the Falklands and took a tough line against the Irish Republican Army. In the process of the latter, her tough stances spurred a number of deadly bombings. Post-Thatcher negotiations finally
sorted things out.

Her model of privatization and budget spending became the role model in the last decades of the 20th century and the decade so far this century. Longer term, her results have been mixed. The Russians were encouraged to follow the Thatcher model with privatization and  ended up with the oligarchs and Vladimir Putin. Bill Clinton was actually a  Thatcherite and his go-easy regulatory policies regarding  Wall Street, along with George W. Bush’s ineptitude, helped set the U.S. up for the Great Recession.

Still, the movie is a good touchstone to ponder the Thatcher years. Despite an excellent performance by Streep, the movie is marred by its boringly-long portrayal of an elderly Thatcher suffering from dementia. It really doesn’t go too far in examining her policies. The movie, like Thatcher herself, seems a promising idea gone wrong.

5 Responses to “The Iron Lady”

  1. Peter, you old Bolshevik, it’s refreshing to see that you don’t totally trash Margaret Thatcher despite your animus toward her economic policies.

    I’d just like to add a little perspective to your commentary. You state, Thatcher “came to power when the U.K. was in a recession far worse than the one the U.S. has recently endured.” That’s an understatement. The UK was not merely in a recession, it was experiencing terminal economic decline. Widely derided as the “sick man of Europe,” its old industries were dying but the country was unable to invent new industries to replace them. Socialism was destroying the country.

    You also stated that “a lot of Thatcherism turned out to be bunk and we are suffering for it now.” Maybe you think a lot of it is bunk, but Tony Blair reinvented the Labor Party along lines that accepted the economic restructuring that Thatcher put into place. The main difference, the Labor Party was less fiscally disciplined, with the result that the country is in dire fiscal straits today.

    One last point: I love the way you implicate Thatcher’s privatization model for the privatization-gone-wrong in the former Soviet Union! Could it be possible that the failure of privatization had nothing to do with Thatcher and everything to do with the privatization process being hijacked by oligarchs using political connections and the power of the state?

  2. Let me add a little perspective for you, Buster.
    Thatcher and Reagan expedited the idea that limiting government involvement and selling off state-owned assets was the way to go. It truly was in the 19809s, 1990s and last decade.
    Since you love “perspective” so, take a peek at what countries are that are doing well in this latest economic downturn– China, India, Brazil and others that have a fair amount of state capitalism. Not the U.S., U.K. or others.
    It could be that your “perspective” held 30 or 30 years back but that you haven’t seen the future or even recognized the current reality.

  3. one thing that Ms. Thatcher did not do was to get rid of the UK’s socialized medicine. For that, I rank her a an under-performing conservative – more talk than action!

  4. The problem with state capitalism is that it is often crony capitalism. Both parties practice it. Too often we see profits flowing to the private sector (the cronies) and the risk and the losses flowing to the public. Cronies may well be “free market believers” (LoL), suppliers or labor unions. At least in a market economy, government officials aren’t picking winners. We still have a long way to go before we see a true market economy here.

  5. the Gov’s tranpo plan is a RIOT. It’s being promoted as economic development:

    Economic Benefits of the Governor’s Transportation Program

    http://s351015200.onlinehome.us/VTC/2011-VTC-presentations/Charlie's%20Conference%20Presentation.pdf

    when you look at the projects, they tout the $$$ “benefits” but the actual cost of the projects is no where to be found!

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