Before she became Prime Minister in 1979 and for several years after, Margaret Thatcher's great concern was that decades of decline under omnipresent and meddlesome government might have destroyed the British people's initiative. Her passionate belief, she said, was that "free enterprise and competition are the engines of prosperity." But she feared that even if her Conservative ( government got rid of central planning, high taxation and other obstacles to economic growth, there might be no upsurge in response. "Supposing I put the ball at their feet, and they don't kick it?" she mused. "That was the nightmare."
The kick came with a resounding thump and set in motion a profound reversal in national fortunes that became known as Thatcherism. It is also rightly referred to as the Thatcher Revolution because the leader of the Conservative Party was a radical ideologue whose policies turned British society upside down. In recognition of her 11 1/2 years in office and her immense achievements, historians will inevitably rank her alongside Winston Churchill as the greatest of this century's British Prime Ministers.
One of her most remarkable successes was challenging Edward Heath for the party leadership in 1975 and winning. The Tory inner circle then consisted mainly of consensus-minded technocrats and clubby squires with no great regard for women. Thatcher's victory surprised and unsettled the old boys so badly that some columnists in London speculated last week that her ouster was in part a settling of accounts.
For many of the party grandees, including members of her own Cabinets, her leadership must have felt like returning to school: she often treated them as if they were errant pupils, hectoring them and making decisions for them. Leaks from upper levels of the party accused her of squelching Cabinet debate and trying to impose a presidential-style system. The combative Prime Minister put much of this down to male chauvinism, saying, "When a woman is strong, she is strident. If a man is strong, gosh, he's a good guy."
More is written about that leadership style, however, than about her undeniable substance. Like her good friend Ronald Reagan, founder of his own ism, she grew up in a small town, the daughter of a grocer and the inheritor of strong, traditional values. She saw nothing but infamy in what she regarded as socialism's sapping her country's strength. She determined to give enervated Britain a good shake and force it to become an economic and political world power once again. Arriving at 10 Downing Street, she embarked on policies that would encourage self-reliance and reward hard work. Her vision, she said, was "of a free, classless, open Britain."
In the eight years of her first two terms, she broke the suffocating power of the trade unions by slicing away at them with restrictive legislation. She assumed tight control over the money supply, deregulated industry, built a free market economy and encouraged foreign investment. Believing personal wealth is a worthy objective, she cut the basic rate of income tax from 33% to 25% and the top rate from 83% to 40%. To cap it off, she sold to the public many of the enterprises postwar Labour governments had nationalized.