The problem is that both are exercises in mythology.
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In The Crown, we are told Thatcher is “a conviction politician” who believes that Britain needs to be reformed from top to bottom. We watch as she battles her cabinet, the Argentinians, even her own emotions, to make good on her promise. In one early scene, she faces a ministerial revolt over spending cuts, as her colleagues accuse her of undermining everything the party stands for. “Oh, and what is that?” Anderson’s Thatcher asks. The scene is fictional but based on reality: While arguing with her ministers, according to Charles Moore’s multivolume biography, Thatcher would sometimes produce Friedrich Hayek’s libertarian work The Constitution of Liberty and declare, “This is what we believe.”
Could Boris Johnson, or indeed any of Thatcher’s other successors, replicate that moment? The Crown’s portrayal of Thatcher evokes a form of nostalgia for the certainty of the past that she has come to represent. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that on some big calls, she was right: on remaking Britain’s moribund economy, for example, and retaking the Falkland Islands. We tend not to linger on areas where her record does not quite fit the narrative we have constructed, where she compromised or made errors of judgment she later came to regret.
Today we see her as a leader who saw what needed to be done to get to where she wanted to go. And in one sense that designation is evidently true. Thatcher was a political titan of iron will and intellectual vigor who did change Britain—for good or ill, depending on your view.
But did she really remake it top to bottom, as The Crown implies, and all sides of the political spectrum accept today? Thatcher lost many battles, including the one over European integration, which she could neither forestall nor stop Britain from taking part in. Indeed, as the historian of modern Britain Dominic Sandbrook has argued, Thatcher probably didn’t change Britain as fundamentally as we believe. Had she not been prime minister, would tens of thousands of miners really still be digging coal out of the ground in northern England, Sandbrook recently asked on a podcast? Wouldn’t the country, like so many of its neighbors, have eventually grasped its way to some kind of economic reform and ended up, roughly, where it is today?
In 1979, when Thatcher entered Downing Street, public spending as a percentage of the total economy stood at 41 percent, according to official figures. It did not fall below 40 percent until 1986, and a sustained economic boom was necessary for it to fall to 35 percent by the time she left office in 1990. Similarly, tax receipts as a percentage of the economy stood at 37 percent when she became prime minister, and 11 years later, they stood at 34 percent. A significant change, but hardly radical. On both scores, the Labour government that came into power in 1997 returned the size of the state to 1979 levels before the 2008 economic crash. In the grand scheme of things, Britain has chugged along relatively undisturbed by the political fighting over its captaincy.