It is difficult to separate some of my personal memories of Margaret Thatcher – mundane but revealing – from the sweeping judgments of history. I had worked for her as the Conservative Party’s research director, and as a minister for about 15 years, before going to Hong Kong as Britain’s last governor there. Because she had negotiated Hong Kong’s handover to China, she was a frequent and welcome visitor during my tenure.
Thatcher was always hugely supportive of the preservation of Hong Kong’s rule of law, civil liberties, and democratic aspirations. She sympathized with, and appeared to like, pro-democracy campaigners. I also remember that, while our official residence was full of excellent, hardworking staff (to whom she was always kind and courteous), she was the only visitor – and there were many – who made her own bed! The job was done with all the care and precision of a grand hotel: boxed corners and neatly turned-down cover.
Invariably, when she traveled on business to Beijing, she would insist on first shopping for a present for the former Chinese leader, Zhao Ziyang, with whom she had negotiated Hong Kong’s handover. Since the Tiananmen killings, which he had tried to avert through compromise, he had been under house arrest. By asking whichever senior officials she saw to pass on her gift and her best wishes to Zhao, the Chinese leadership would understand that the outside world was still thinking of him and wanted to ensure his survival. It was typically practical and kind.
As a national leader, Thatcher’s principal achievements were to reverse Britain’s decline, which had gained momentum in the 1970s, before her first term as Prime Minister in 1979. Little of the extensive coverage of her death has focused on what Britain was like in those years. The economy was on its knees, and the abuse of trade-union power had made Britain almost ungovernable.
Paradoxically, she made accountable and authoritative government possible again partly by curtailing the state’s role in the economy. Her reforms laid the foundations for a period during which Britain’s per capita wealth grew faster than most of its competitors’.
Thatcher’s reforms reinvigorated the private sector, promoted home ownership, lowered taxes on enterprise, deregulated large parts of the economy, and reined in the unions’ power to use their industrial muscle. She set about this reform program with determination, but – at least until her last years – with subtle pragmatism as well. She moved step by step, invariably in the same direction. No one in government would be in any doubt about what she wanted to do.
The reforms that she undertook struck a chord internationally. Her period in office coincided with the crumbling of Soviet communism in Europe, which culminated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. She had been an outspoken critic of Soviet communism, like her transatlantic friend and partner, Ronald Reagan. Her espousal of free markets – indeed, her ringing declarations about the link between political and economic freedom – inspired the Soviet bloc’s peoples, who had suffered under the Soviet yoke for 40 years.
While her antipathy to German reunification was ill-judged, her doubts about the ability to reconcile greater political integration in the European Union with democratic accountability in its member states has gained many more sympathizers over the years – and not only in her own country. She pushed for greater integration of the European single market, while questioning whether this really required ceding more political authority to the European Commission.
Many consider the Falklands War in 1982 as the apogee of her patriotism. It was just as much a sign of her political bravado.
The recovery of this far-flung British dependency, whose citizens were resolutely committed to remaining British subjects after the Argentine invasion, was a daring military act. It could have gone terribly wrong, bringing down her and her administration. Even the Reagan administration came close to balking at supporting Britain’s military campaign. But fortune favored the brave, and victory solidified her reputation for decisiveness and raw courage. As Britain’s taxi drivers liked to say, she was the best man in the government.
Thatcher’s confidence in the strength of Britain’s relationship with the United States was underpinned by her friendship with Reagan. They were very different characters who shared a similar philosophy, albeit expressed with more charm by a president who much admired her directness and her simple, even blunt assertions of the old verities. “Isn’t she wonderful,” he is reported to have said to an aide, one hand over the telephone, as she scolded him from London for some US policy error. It was a sentiment shared by many Americans who went to hear her lecture after her retirement.
I most admired Thatcher for her political style. She never required a focus group to tell her what she believed or how to express it. She regarded ideas as the very core of politics, and she battled for those that she held. She did not “triangulate” in an effort to find the middle point between opposing views; she deplored the idea that the middle ground of politics, where most voters dwell, was pre-determined by a wishy-washy elite consensus. An effective leader, she believed, could shift this political terrain by convincing people of the truth and relevance of his or her position.
Thatcher was often more careful than her admirers have subsequently suggested in the way she set about doing this. But, ultimately, her passion for the ideas to which she was devoted splashed bright colors across a political world usually painted in shades of grey.
Margaret Thatcher was not perfect. Like everyone else, she made mistakes and got some things wrong. But she was undoubtedly a giant of twentieth-century politics, a leader who changed her and our world – for the better.
Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
©: Project Syndicate