There is no need to follow the journalistic convention of noting her profession. Everybody knows who she was. She has been
an iconic figure of her time: loved, hated, and ultimately respected. In one way, she was representative of an admired type: the doughty Brit who lived as a youth through World War II – the retreat at Dunkirk, the Blitz, the years of deprivation, the fight across Northern Europe – and triumphed over Hitler and Mussolini. Thatcher had always that quintessential Britishness about her, tough, enduring, and with a touch of quirky homeliness in her polished demeanor.
But in the other way, the way for which we remember her, she was sui generis. There had never been a “Margaret Thatcher” before her, in any age or place, and there certainly hasn’t been one since.
She was not born to privilege, as her predecessors (and now her successors) in the office have mostly been. She was the daughter of a grocer, a man who was in politics in that most British of ways: locally, gregariously, among his fellows in the yeomanry. In an age of doubt, she learned from her parents, and held all her life, an imperturbable Christian faith. Committed to excellence and winning, she was a self-made professional, in a time when that was not common for women. Yet she had a loving marriage with Denis Thatcher for 42 years (he passed away in 2003), and became a mother and grandmother as well as a prime minister.
Most of all, Margaret Thatcher was a philosopher of political and economic freedom, or as close to being so as professional politicians can get. She was prepared to do unpopular things if they were the things that would unleash Britons to be productive and self-sufficient. She chose important advisors for their principles and ideas, and she argued principle fearlessly both in Parliament and before the public.
As each person’s lifetime grows longer, he comes to see how very unusual that is. In some ways, Thatcher studied in a tougher school than an American president like Ronald Reagan, because she came up through the ranks in the rough and tumble of parliamentary politics. Americans get a kick out of the seeming chaos of the British parliament, in which the sides often revert to simply shouting each other down. But Thatcher was at her best in this environment. She would never have risen above a certain level if she had merely swelled the partisan chorus. Her genius was not to out-shout the Labour MPs, but to out-argue them.
I wrote some years ago (before I was blogging, so I don’t have the passage handy) that Reagan and Thatcher had different rhetorical styles and effects. Thatcher out-argued her political opponents. She had perfected the art of wading into a verbal exchange and winning on points.
Reagan, by contrast – although he was quite effective in formal debate (as Robert Kennedy learned) – had a different form of genius. Rather than arguing points on his opponents’ terms, he simply reframed the debate on his own. There was a simplicity to his approach that came across, especially to his political opponents, as almost preternatural. Reagan did not so much appear to enjoy arguing issues before a crowd – Thatcher’s style – as to sweetly and cheerfully confound his opponents by shutting their rhetorical momentum down entirely.
Reagan’s and Thatcher’s respective effects were partly a function of their nations’ political environments. Reagan excelled in the unitary-executive forms of American politics, where Thatcher would probably have floundered, her battering-ram oratorical style unsuited for them. Thatcher’s awe-inspiring performances in parliamentary debate are something I don’t think Reagan could have matched. I suspect he would have developed an ulcer from trying to make himself heard in Parliament.
As to which style is more difficult to learn or maintain, I am not old enough yet to pronounce judgment. To devotees of either style, the other can look anything from easy to inappropriate. What we can conclude, I think, is that Margaret Thatcher had exactly the philosophy, political style, and strength of character that Britain needed when she took office as prime minister in 1979. Many have been the onlookers who joked ironically to themselves, when seeing Thatcher among her NATO allies or the leaders of the (then) G-7, that the brightly-hued female in the group was the toughest of them all.
In the coming days, we will see more detailed and richly-deserved tributes, recounting Thatcher’s leadership in the Cold War, the Falklands conflict, and the decentralization of the British economy. She gave Great Britain a new lease on life, and was essential, as Reagan and a handful of others were, to winning the Cold War for the West.
But I would like to conclude with a thought expressed by fellow blogger Rick Richman in his review of the Meryl Streep film Iron Lady in 2011. The movie’s script seemed to delight in juxtaposing scenes of Thatcher’s former robustness with the frailty of her old age, as if to emphasize the end to which even the strongest of us come. But Rick was having none of it. Read his review; you won’t regret taking the time. I wrote of it thus:
Rick makes the case that, whatever the narrative intentions of the film’s producers, the movie’s result is to spotlight the remarkable strength, grace, and admirable quality of Thatcher’s character and legacy. If I were to sum up Rick’s thesis, I would put it this way: No matter what you try to say about Margaret Thatcher, she’s going to have the last word.