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Margaret Thatcher, Her Personality and Politics

- April 8, 2013

We welcome this guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  He has done research on Thatcher and, incidentally, grew up in Great Britain.


The death of Margaret Thatcher has prompted much reflection on her policies and her personality. One way to think about Thatcher is to consider her in light of the recurrent debate about structural forces and individual agency as shapers of political outcomes. Thatcher was certainly a distinctive presence, but did she make the political weather, or would anyone in her position have done as she did? If Thatcher as prime minister was just responding to the incentives in her political environment from 1979-1990, she was less interesting as an individual than many of the tributes suggest. If she shaped her environment in ways determined by her personality and individual beliefs, she becomes a more important focus of our attention.

Circumstances were certainly ripe for change when Thatcher came to power. The UK economy was rotten with stagnant growth and high unemployment. James Callaghan’s Labour government had been unable to reach wage settlements with its union allies, leading to widespread industrial action. Thatcher’s own Conservative Party was middle-of-the-road ideologically, accepting the broad outlines of the British postwar consensus: nationalized industries, full employment policies, strong unions, and a big welfare state. Her party was dominated by patrician proponents of One Nation conservatism. Any prime minister in Thatcher’s place would have had strong incentives to change the political direction of the country, to revivify the economy and revisit the center-left consensus.

Yet would anyone have gone so far as she did, so quickly? We forget that Thatcher was an embattled prime minister during much of her first term, leading a small group of believers in free market, monetarist policies, isolated even within her cabinet. Much of her own side, let alone the opposition, believed that her economic policies, developed outside of civil service and party structures by her personal advisor Alan Walters, were responsible for the deep recession of 1980-81. Would another prime minister have loosened the money supply and sought to reflate the economy? Thatcher would entertain no such thoughts. Opposition to her economic policies would come to a violent head with the Miners’ strikes of 1984-85, stemming from the controversial closure or privatization of the state-run industries she had inherited. To structuralists, these were the necessary birth pangs of a post-industrial Britain; to students of agency, the speed and scope of Thatcher’s reforms – and the attendant social dislocation – were redolent of her aggressive personality and rejection of the status quo.

The trajectory of her prime ministership was transformed by the conflict over the Falklands / Malvinas islands. Thatcher, consumed with her economic battles and heading for a projected defeat in the 1983 election, had given the Falklands / Malvinas relatively little attention. She hoped, as had several previous governments, that a quiet diplomatic settlement over the contested islands could be reached with Argentina. Yet, when Argentina invaded the islands, the combative, black-and-white side of Thatcher took over. She despaired of the immediate advice she was given – the islands could not be taken back by force, were not strategically significant, and diplomacy was the best way forward – stating that “we have got to get them back.” Taking huge political and military risks, she dispatched a naval task force to recapture the islands, and rejected pleas, as a clash of arms approached, to negotiate a resolution. She found that the advice of her Foreign Office evidenced “the flexibility of principle characteristic of that department” and resolved to show an “iron will.” “What was the alternative?” she wrote in her memoirs: “That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud or violence? Not while I was Prime Minister.”

Striking these Churchillian tones seemed, in 1982, discordant with a post-imperial Britain in decline, yet they were consonant with Thatcher’s personality. Her rhetoric on British greatness became so hawkish that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was seriously concerned that she was contemplating the forcible retention of Hong Kong. Her cabinet colleagues later told biographer John Campbell that, in their opinion, no one else in the prime minister’s chair at that point in time would have launched a military expedition to recapture the islands.

Thatcher’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan gives us another angle from which to consider her impact. British prime ministers have strong incentives to maintain the alliance with the American superpower, and all have attempted to do so. Yet the closeness of the alliance does vary. Harold Wilson refused Lyndon Johnson’s desperate entreaties for UK troops to fight in Vietnam. Edward Heath, Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, was cool toward the U.S. and sought to integrate Britain more closely with the European Community. Thatcher, though, was resolutely Atlanticist and found much to admire in the similarly black-and-white temperament of President Reagan. As Thatcher’s biographer Hugo Young wrote, there was “almost nothing that divided the Thatcher from the Reagan view of the world. What typified and infused it was, above all else, a wonderful measure of certainty.”

Thatcher and Reagan made a shared journey in moving from the hardest of anti-communist lines to an embrace of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Here is surely definitive evidence of structure trumping agency: the incentive to peaceably end the cold war overwhelming the idiosyncratic anti-Soviet beliefs of the U.S. and UK leaders. Yet, there was a good dose of personality in Thatcher and Reagan’s shared change of mind. Those who categorize the world into definitive, clear-cut boxes such as “friend” and “enemy” respond in a distinctive way to radical changes of circumstance. Having achieved cognitive closure on an issue, they are capable of ignoring lots of information for a long period of time in favor of persisting with their settled images. Yet, once they pay attention to a change, they can rapidly reverse their views. According to her advisor George Urban, Thatcher had an instant intuition about Gorbachev: “I immediately hit it off with him.” She passed on her judgment to Reagan: “We can do business with him.” Both Thatcher and Reagan rebranded Gorbachev from “enemy” to “friend” with greater cognitive ease than the more complex thinker George H.W. Bush, who initiated a pause in cold war reconciliation after succeeding Reagan as president.

Yet it was a foreign affairs issue upon which Thatcher did not change her beliefs that brought about her political demise. Her view on European integration was always clear: “Europe” was foreign, a bloated bureaucracy pushing side-payments to special interests such as uncompetitive continental farmers. As the European Community moved toward full monetary union and ever increasing political integration, Thatcher become more resolute in her determination to retain, as she saw it, British independence and sovereignty. Her political problem was that a huge part of her own party, including many of the most senior members of the cabinet, did not share her views. Her powerful Finance Minister, Nigel Lawson, and Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, threatened to resign unless she took Britain into the “Exchange Rate Mechanism” – a precursor to the single European currency. Her extraordinarily belligerent performances at European summits and in parliament during this period, bellowing “No! No! No!” when responding to questioning on the issue, exposed fatal splits in her government. The Europe controversies were followed by the introduction of a deeply unpopular new taxation scheme, her characteristic refusal to change course in the face of public and political opposition, and the eruption of street riots in London. She was removed by cabinet coup in November 1990. “Treachery with a smile on its face,” she called it.

Thatcher’s political legacy was profound. Her successor, John Major, proved unable to seal the Conservative Party fissure over Europe, nursing his battered and exhausted party through a weak single-term in office followed by thirteen years out of power. Tony Blair, a media-savvy reformer who entered parliament in one of the few victories by a Labour party candidate in the 1983 election, saw Thatcher in full pomp as the model of what an assertive prime minister could achieve. He shifted the Labour party to the center, consolidating a new post-Thatcher consensus well to the right of the pre-Thatcher mode. His foreign policy was characterized by a definitive, assertive worldview reminiscent of the Iron Lady.

Lacking the ability to re-run the years 1979-1990 with a different person as prime minister, a weighting of the impact on history of Thatcher’s personality versus the circumstances she faced can be a matter only of thoughtful speculation. As we reflect upon the Thatcher era, and larger questions of structure and agency in political life, we should continue to ask what would have been the same, and what would have been different, if someone else had been prime minister during that long decade.