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.