Margaret Thatcher, one of the most significant leaders of the 20th century, died yesterday at age 87. A model of convictional leadership, Margaret Thatcher became almost universally known as Britain’s “Iron Lady.” In May 1979, Margaret Thatcher moved into No. 10 Downing Street and changed the course of British history. Beyond this, Lady Thatcher changed the terms of debate on both sides of the Atlantic and left a legacy of leadership that should inspire generations to come.
Born October 13, 1925 in the village of Grantham, Margaret Roberts was soon recognized as an unusually bright and forceful child. Her father, Alfred, was a grocer who had high hopes for his children. The Roberts household was a place of firm discipline, Christian nurture, and intellectual activity. After graduating from Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Margaret Roberts entered Oxford University, where she earned a degree in chemistry and became the first woman to serve as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. Shortly thereafter, she married Denis Thatcher, an executive in the chemical industry. Together, they were to have two children, Mark and Carol. After over a half century of marriage, Denis Thatcher died in 2003.
Margaret Thatcher’s role as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association indicated two factors that would play a large part in the future of Great Britain. First, her political philosophy and worldview were solidly grounded in the conservative tradition. Her leadership in Britain would be considered revolutionary only because that nation had strayed so far from any conservative philosophy of government and economics. Second, Margaret Thatcher’s leadership at Oxford was indicative of her leadership ability as it would be later recognized by her political peers.
First elected as a member of parliament in 1959, Mrs. Thatcher was soon recognized for her articulate voice and clarity of thought. When Edward Heath led the Conservative Party to victory in 1970, he appointed Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education. During her time in that role, Mrs. Thatcher faced significant fiscal and philosophical challenges. Nevertheless, after the Tory loss in 1974, Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. As the nation’s shadow Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher led her party to focus on ideas. In their years as the opposition party, the Conservatives, led by Mrs. Thatcher and a small band of like-minded thinkers, developed a comprehensive proposal for what they would do to solve Britain’s disastrous economic and political problems.
On May 4, 1979, Mrs. Thatcher led the Conservative Party to electoral victory and became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. The election took place in the context of a depressed economy and Margaret Thatcher’s firm ideas–though not fully embraced by the electorate–stood in stark contrast to the Labour Party’s confusion and captivity to labor unions and the welfare state.
Once in office, Prime Minister Thatcher moved swiftly, confronting Britain’s disastrous monetary policy and skyrocketing interest rates.
One thing was clear -– Margaret Thatcher brought an entirely new focus on individual responsibility to her nation. She was convinced that Britain’s dismal economic condition and lethargic business culture had been caused by the nation’s commitment to a comprehensive welfare state. She understood what others had missed — a failure to assume individual responsibility would lead to catastrophic economic stagnation and the breakdown of social structures.
Nevertheless, her early years as Prime Minister were filled with controversy and tumult. Even as her policies transformed the nation’s economic condition, she was attacked as cruel, cold, and politically calculating.
All that changed when, in April 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The islands were British territory and had been for well over a century. Outraged by the invasion, Prime Minister Thatcher sought to bring diplomatic pressure on Argentina in order to force a removal of its troops. When this was ultimately unsuccessful, Britain’s Prime Minister responded with a demonstration of military force unlike anything the nation had experienced since World War II. Britain’s armed might, led by the Royal Navy, forced the Argentinians to surrender, and Britain reclaimed her islands.
Largely forgotten now is the fact that this military action was hardly an assured success. Britain had not faced a significant and direct military challenge in decades, and the government put itself at risk by launching such a massive effort to reclaim the islands. Nevertheless, when Britain achieved a clear victory in the war, Margaret Thatcher emerged as Britain’s “Iron Lady.” Britons -– even those opposed to her domestic policies -– admired their Prime Minister for her leadership in restoring Britain’s prestige and honor among nations. Shortly after the war, Mrs. Thatcher led her party to a landslide victory. In her first successful election, Mrs. Thatcher had held a parliamentary majority of only 44 seats. In her second election, she expanded that margin to a majority of 144–a hallmark in British political history.
Mrs. Thatcher’s courage was tested again in 1984, when an assassination attempt nearly took her life. Just a few years before, Mrs. Thatcher had refused to meet the demands of Irish terrorists. In retaliation, a bomb was planted in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the Conservative Party conference was held. Though Mrs. Thatcher barely survived, five of her government colleagues were killed. In the end, she had escaped death by a matter of feet.
Soon after leading the Conservative Party to an unprecedented third consecutive electoral victory, Mrs. Thatcher ran into trouble within her own party. Some of the Conservatives, concerned that they might lose their seats in the 1991 general election, demanded that the Prime Minister compromise on key domestic policies. When she refused, Geoffrey Howe, her leader in the Commons, resigned in protest. Shortly thereafter, Michael Haseltine, a former cabinet minister, challenged Mrs. Thatcher as leader of the Conservative Party. Though she was sustained in the first round of voting, she resigned on November 22, 1990.
In her years after Downing Street, Mrs. Thatcher continued and extended her influence and legacy. She was made a Baroness in 1992 and became a member of the House of Lords. Yet, her influence was most effectively extended through her vigorous writings and best-selling books. Her two-volume autobiography, published as The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years, establish her as both author and public intellectual. After suffering a series of strokes, Lady Thatcher retired from much of public life. Nevertheless, she continued her influence through courageous acts of public service and representation, including her moving participation in the funeral for President Ronald Reagan.
Her presence at that event was both significant and fitting, for Margaret Thatcher had forged a close and powerful working relationship with Ronald Reagan. They shared the same basic worldview and both were well described as “conviction politicians.” The fall of the Soviet Union and the economic revolutions of the 1980s were made possible through their leadership, boldness, and determination.
By any measure, Margaret Thatcher leaves a legacy of leadership that transformed, not only her nation, but much of the world. As Sir Rhodes Boyson, one of her fellow architects of the “Thatcherite Revolution,” explained: “When she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, Britain was on the brink of disaster, threatened by total collapse. The weak Labour government with a small majority presided over a bankrupt economy in hock to the IMF and threatened from within by a challenge to law and order itself. When she was forced from power in 1990, she left a sound economy and a confident and well-ordered society. The lessons are writ large.”
When critics called for her to reverse course in economic policy, Margaret Thatcher famously retorted: “The Lady’s not for turning.” She acted out of conviction, not political calculation.
Baroness Thatcher once described her understanding of how the Christian faith should influence political philosophy and public policy. Speaking to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May of 1988, Mrs. Thatcher argued that Christians “must not profess the Christian faith and go to church simply because we want social reforms and benefits for a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ.”
In explaining how the Christian faith should impact politics, she suggested that the Bible does not tell us “exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have.” As she explained, “On this point, Christians will very often genuinely disagree; though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect. What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.”
In her address, she affirmed “the basic ties of the family, which are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue.” She insisted that the government must respect the family and build its policies on a foundation of family rights and family responsibilities.
“We must recognize that modern society is infinitely more complex than that of Biblical time, and of course new occasions teach new duties.” She was right, of course, and her mature and thoughtful reflections on Christian responsibility should call out the very best of our own thinking and reflection in these times.
At the very least, on the twenty-sixth anniversary of her rise to serve as Britain’s Prime Minister, we should pause to reflect on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of leadership and the lessons that simply must not be missed. Standing at the center of her leadership and her legacy is the belief that the integrity of leadership is inevitably tied to the character of the leader and to the power of the leader’s ideas. This is how she lived, and this is how she led -–and this is why we all stand in her debt.
This essay is based on a commentary I originally wrote in 2005 to commemorate the 26th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power as Britain’s Prime Minister. Two portraits of Margaret Thatcher are displayed in my library. One is a photograph of Baroness Thatcher with President Ronald Reagan. The other is of Baroness Thatcher with me, when Mary and I had the honor of a private conversation with Mrs. Thatcher in 1996.
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