Why Thatcher Matters—More Than Ever

Charles Moore’s biography charts a path forward for modern conservatives.

Margaret Thatcher speaks to journalists in New York, in September 1977. (Carlos Rene Perez / AP)

Only twice since her coronation in 1952 has the present queen of England attended a funeral of a non-royal, non-relative. The first was that of Winston Churchill. The second, that of Margaret Thatcher.

With sure instinct, the queen identified the two most important British leaders of her era—British leaders, but not leaders only of Britain. Like Churchill, Margaret Thatcher belonged to the world. Along with her friend and admirer Ronald Reagan, she was a leader of both a party and a global movement that would redefine the appropriate economic roles of the state and the individual. Yet precisely because Thatcher wrought such transformative change, her world and her challenges have receded into a past that seems to many as remote and exotic as sepia images from before the First World War. One of the many achievements of Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher is to recall into vivid life not only the British prime minister herself, but the political era to which she gave her name—an era in which the socialism and statism Thatcher so strenuously opposed remained daily experiences for every air traveler, every railway commuter, every natural-gas user, and everyone who used, or hoped to use, a telephone:

In 1981, the present author bought his first house. It had no telephone and he wished to install one, but was told by [British Telecom] that this would take six months because of a “shortage of numbers.” The only way to speed this up was for his employer, the editor of The Daily Telegraph, to have a word with the chairman of the company, Sir George Jefferson. The device was installed in ten days.

A former editor of The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph, and now an influential columnist, Moore was Thatcher’s own choice of biographer and the beneficiary of exclusive first access to her papers. (Moore also happens to be a longtime friend of mine.) But while Moore certainly admires Thatcher, he is also an independent intellect and a dispassionate voice. As Richard Aldous recently wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Moore remains on target to produce the definitive ‘case for the defense’ of this titanic and still controversial figure. His work will very likely stand alongside that of John Morley, official biographer of Gladstone, as one of the masterpieces of British political history.” It was agreed from the start that the book would not be published in Thatcher’s lifetime, and she herself never read—nor asked to read—a page of it.

Moore’s biography will extend over three volumes. The first was published in 2013. The second and latest was published in the United States earlier this year—a year when it seems very possible that a woman could be elected president. In that context, Thatcher’s precedent-smashing achievements have gained new immediacy.

One anecdote gives a taste of the inhospitable circumstances Thatcher faced as one of the first women to exercise elected leadership in a democracy.* In October 1983, Thatcher was confronting the severest crisis in U.S.-U.K. relations in her time in office: the imminent U.S. invasion of Grenada, a member nation of the British Commonwealth. On the eve of the invasion, she was a guest at a farewell party for the outgoing U.S. ambassador. Thatcher planned to confront the ambassador after dinner and extract information from him. She waited until the guests arose … at which point she, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was obligated to “withdraw” with the ladies, while the men, including the ambassador, enjoyed port in the dining room.

Thatcher submitted to this rigmarole, as she submitted to so many inequities and absurdities: hostile and intrusive scrutiny of her clothes, hair, and voice; the smiling condescension of senior civil servants; the angry resentment of bested male political rivals. Moore writes perceptively and sensitively about what it meant for Thatcher to smash that glass ceiling against which Hillary Clinton bumped so hard in 2008—including the many ways that politics is inescapably, not arbitrarily, different for women than for men: her guilt about whether her children’s problems later in life were due to her neglect; her grim determination never to reveal weakness, lest it be attributed to her sex. Even her walk was decisive, with every step—as Moore vividly phrases it—seeming to crush and grind doubts beneath her pumps.

Moore’s first volume narrates Thatcher’s life and career through the Falklands War, the most difficult and dangerous decision of her prime ministership, while the second deals with Thatcher’s political zenith, from her first reelection in 1983 through her second reelection in 1987. By 1987, Thatcher’s policies had evolved into a well-understood “ism”: monetary discipline to restrain inflation, curbs on the power of labor unions, privatization of state-owned industries, financial deregulation, slowed state spending, reductions in income and capital taxes. British Conservatives would retain power for another decade with variations on that formula, even after deposing Thatcher herself in 1990. Tony Blair’s Labour Party would preserve many of the most important features of Thatcherism for another decade more.

Even before the financial crisis of 2008, however, Thatcherism as a creed was losing political and intellectual force—and not only in the United Kingdom. British Conservatives responded by launching a program of conservative “modernization”: accepting same-sex marriage, expanding environmental protection, guaranteeing the existing British system of social insurance for working people—at the same time as they reduced welfare benefits for the non-working, tightened immigration policies, restrained the growth of government spending, and advanced British national interests within Europe. Here again, Charles Moore became a key figure, as a leading intellectual force at, and then chairman of the board of, the modernizing think tank Policy Exchange (a position I now hold). American conservatives, by contrast, have for the most part responded to an analogous political and intellectual crisis by doubling down on their platform, rejecting any deviation from or innovation on what they regard as true conservative principles.

Moore’s biography of Thatcher offers important insights for thinking through which set of conservatives is taking the wiser approach. That question long remained unresolved. In the United Kingdom, David Cameron’s Conservatives gained power in 2010 only in unhappy coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, Tea-Party Republicans won decisive gains in the U.S. Congress and at the state level. But the handsome 2015 reelection of Cameron’s government, this time with a majority, does seem to prove that U.K. Conservatives did something right—even as American Republicans lost the presidency in 2012 and appear to have collapsed into chaos in 2016.

The challenge to both parties is to adapt policy to a world that has changed radically from that of 1979-80, when Thatcher and Reagan together launched the modern era of conservative governance. Back then, state-enforced egalitarianism crushed innovation and growth. Whatever the Anglo-American world suffers from today, excessive egalitarianism is not it.

Margaret Thatcher on her nationwide election-campaign tour in April 1979, in Oxfordshire (Bob Dear / AP)

In his discussion of Thatcher’s financial deregulation, Moore cites a startling statistic: In 1982, only seven people in the U.K. financial-services industry earned more than 100,000 pounds per year. Today, the CEOs of the major British chartered banks earn roughly $10 million, and the most successful hedge-fund managers receive as much as $100 million in pay and bonuses.

The relatively low pay of British bankers a generation ago was partly an artifact of then-prevailing confiscatory tax rates. In those days, senior executives took much of their compensation in the form of untaxed fringe benefits such as rent for a London apartment and membership dues at their favorite clubs. Still, even after allowing for tax avoidance, there’s no denying that in Thatcher’s day, the rich, in Britain as elsewhere, were just a lot less rich than they are today. The accusation that Thatcherism and Reaganism only served the wealthy never much hurt Thatcher or Reagan—but that same accusation weighs down their successors in an era of vastly accumulated wealth and stagnating middle-class incomes.

Thatcher emphatically presented herself as a champion of and for the middle class—and that is how she was likewise perceived by supporters and opponents alike. Moore quotes the bitter assessment of Thatcher and her supporters by one of the most vituperative of those opponents, the novelist Hanif Kureishi: “vicious, suburban-minded, materialistic philistines.” In the English context, “suburban” means something very different than what it means in the United States. The most prosperous, prestigious people in England live either in the center of London or in the fashionable countryside—or, ideally, both—but never, ever in anything described as a “suburb.” Those suburbs were home to the aspiring middle—to people who shopped at Marks & Spencer (as indeed did Thatcher herself), sent their children to state schools, and felt very much excluded from, and condescended to by, the governing power of the United Kingdom as of 1979. As another Thatcher critic, the Sunday Telegraph columnist Peregrine Worsthorne, wrote: “Listening to Mrs Thatcher, one might be forgiven for supposing that the civilised governing class is part of the enemy which she, with the help of the people, is determined to eradicate …” The view Worsthorne expressed—the rejection of Thatcherism from above—was widely held, even if seldom so pungently expressed.

And this was an entirely plausible perception. The Thatcher described by Moore is a woman who saw the world from the point of view of people like her own father, a successful small businessman who rose to become mayor of the town of Grantham, Lincolnshire: striving, not established; abundant in ambition, but not in money. Thatcher spoke often of “our people,” and she shaped her policy to meet their perceived needs. Her privatization plans favored small investors over large, even at the risk of reducing revenues to the state. She advocated the partial deductibility of mortgage interest, against the advice of her economists, because she believed it helped young couples into their first homes. She disliked property taxes as a “tax on improving one’s own home.” Even as she battled radical coal-mining unions that refused to hold member votes before going on strike and defied the law afterward, Thatcher “found that the working miners ‘in many ways chimed with her view of the world.’ They seemed to represent everything she most admired: they wanted to work, they resisted left-wing union militancy and they faced intimidation and violence bravely.” (The internal quotation is from Stephen Sherbourne, Thatcher’s then-political secretary.)

Thatcher’s policy and political triumphs transformed Britain. But as always happens, progress was accompanied by things unexpected and uncongenial. The metropolitan cultural elite whom Thatcher so distrusted have ranked among the biggest beneficiaries of the changes she wrought.

As Moore stresses from the opening pages of his second volume, Thatcher was not—not most fundamentally anyway—the doctrinaire, radical individualist of anti-Thatcher caricature.

[I]t is not true that economic doctrines were the source of her beliefs. She was much more historically minded than that, although her sense of history was more romantic than accurate. She was also much more specifically British and less austerely theoretical than her critics alleged. Thatcherism was more like a vision than a doctrine. She carried in her head a picture of the country derived from its past greatness and energetically projected on to its future. It was more restorationist than revolutionary, although the restoration would sometimes require revolutionary methods.

Thatcher’s nationalism was emphatically a liberal nationalism, in the antique sense of the word “liberal.” “If one were to go into a pub at a time of national crisis,” Thatcher once said, “possibly the phrase you’d hear on everyone’s lips as they discuss things would be: ‘We’re a free country.’”

But the country mattered along with the freedom. The two would never be separated in her mind. When, later in her time in office, some of the more doctrinaire members of her party began transferring their loyalties to a European Union that (they believed) could enforce stricter free-market discipline upon Britain than the British electorate ever would, she chose British democracy over post-national libertarianism. She foresaw that the post-national entity would not actually prove as libertarian as its proponents in Britain promised. But even if she had seen otherwise, it was her idea of Britain, not any program of market-opening, that ranked as her first commitment. Some British officials started to promote a larger role for the European Union in setting taxes as a way to build a single European marketplace. Thatcher adamantly rejected that concept, despite its free-market tincture. As one of her aides redacted her words at the time: “There was absolutely no question of the UK accepting tax harmonisation. It would strike at the root of Parliament’s powers. … She was not going to be told by anyone outside the United Kingdom what rate of tax was to be charged here.”

One of the most important and unexpected revelations of Moore’s work is the degree to which Thatcher was concerned both with reducing the role of the state where it was not warranted, and reasserting the authority of the state where that authority was required. The great miners’ strike of 1984 galvanized Thatcher as much because the National Union of Mineworkers refused to hold a legally required national vote on whether to strike, as because of any of the economic issues at stake: “Mrs Thatcher and those close to her had it constantly in their minds that the miners’ strike was ‘a seminal event in British history.’ If it went wrong, the ill-chosen, never properly answered question of the February 1974 general election, ‘Who Governs Britain?’, would be decided against the elected government which Mrs Thatcher led.”

In his appearances to promote the latest volume of his biography, Moore has often been asked what Thatcher would think of this or that contemporary political debate. Each time, he patiently delivers the same answer: It’s impossible to know, and it’s mad to guess.

Yet without guessing, we can learn. Successful conservatism champions the striving. Successful conservatism mobilizes markets in service to nation. Successful conservatism is animated by vision and memory, not theory and dogma. When Thatcher fought her last campaign in 1987, she based her appeal on pride in the ownership of homes, pensions, and a couple of hundred shares of British Gas or British Telecom—the pride of the small saver, not the large investor; of the home owner, not the speculator; of the person who earned a wage or salary, not the person who recouped a capital gain.

Those were Thatcher’s people, and she never forgot them. Modern conservatism will regain its strength and purpose when we learn again to think of them as ours. Among the many merits of this magnificent book is that it not only reminds us of when they were, but suggests to the careful reader how to make them so again.

* This article originally stated that Margaret Thatcher was the first elected female leader of a large democracy. That distinction belongs to Indira Gandhi in India. We regret the error.