It was fitting that, turning to Twitter for immediate reaction to Baroness Thatcher’s passing, one of the first responses I read was from the Polish minister of foreign affairs Radoslaw Sikorski: “Lady Thatcher, fearless champion of liberty, stood up for captive nations, helped free world win the Cold War. Deserves statue in Poland.”
Our memories of the Iron Lady have yet to season into history. The truth, sometimes easier to see from outside these shores, is that Thatcher was not just a revolutionary Prime Minister for the UK, she helped alter the course of world history.
At home, whether we summon up images of three electoral triumphs or of striking miners, our memories of Thatcher are too close to the ground to see the great struggle for the free society that she helped win. For Thatcher was elected, as a passionate defender of liberty, into a world where tyranny was on the march: 1979 saw Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocrats seize control in Iran and the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan.
At a turning point in the Cold War, Thatcher was a leader able to bestride the world as an equal among giants like US President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. She did not scuttle at the coat tails of a powerful ally in the manner of Tony Blair, but sent her chariots out in the vanguard of battle, winning a mandate for change in Britain when such things seemed impossible.
Thatcher’s reforms, most notably around privatisation, then helped provide roadmaps for the rest of the world. She took the unfashionable ideal of limiting the scale of state interference and restored it to the status of best practice. And she did so at the helm of a country which, before her election, was visibly on the slide, making her achievement all the more remarkable.
Such greatness is sometimes set in contrast with her relatively humble origins, as if a grocer’s daughter was by nature ill-fitted to the defence of liberty. That is to misunderstand what she stood for. At the door of 10 Downing Street in 1979, after reciting the prayer of St Francis that became the most-remembered quote of the day, Thatcher added “it’s passionately interesting for me that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election.”
Thatcher understood that socialist cries of power to the people were ultimately cries for power over the people. Her vision of the free society, by contrast, rested simply on the power of people, the knowledge that ordinary men and women could achieve the extraordinary when given freedom and responsibility for the consequences.
The voice of our first woman Prime Minister was inevitably that of an outsider, but the victimised majority she spoke for most clearly was the commercial middle class. She was the small traders’ champion, rising on their behalf to chastise an intellectual cloister whose leftist theorising was mugging the world with its murderous reality. Her philosophy has been misrepresented as a call to self regard, but it was instead a rebuke to well-meaning snobs with no sense of what things cost in the real world.
Such a vision offered hope for what any of us can achieve. But it also stressed the sacrifice and hard work that such achievement demands. In taking Britain from spendthrift bust to 1980s boom, in her own journey from Grantham to global icon, Thatcher proved the point twice over.
Her achievement, at home and abroad, was to show that an uncompromising defence of freedom and responsibility is an alternative that works. She earned the world’s lasting gratitude, especially in those nations that she helped deliver from Soviet slavery.
At home, we seem less sure today. Thatcher affirmed that power belonged not to the elites, but to all of us if we are wiling to pay the price. That remains an uncomfortable lesson, both for politicians who enjoy playing philosopher-king with other people’s money, and for those who want to be entitled to everything and never count the cost.
As a result, Britain is once again wrapped in economic malaise and at risk of decline, mismanaged by a government that tries to please everyone and ends by achieving nothing.
Thatcher helped our country return to greatness by reversing the decline of its historic liberties. But she taught that freedom and greatness cannot be purchased cheaply. When we are ready for such unvarnished truths once again, her example will be waiting.