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With Ronald Reagan in his centenary year now regarded as one of the great presidents, and two of his political heirs, Michele Bachmann and possibly Sarah Palin, eyeing bids for the White House, it is a good moment to look again at Reagan’s great British ally, Margaret Thatcher.
More than 30 years after Britain’s first woman prime minister entered Downing Street, America is still searching for its first female president. Sarah Palin has named Thatcher as one of her heroines, and Michele Bachmann compared herself to the former prime minister last week (and may well do it again during tonight’s GOP debate). How do the Tea Party pretenders measure up to Britain’s Iron Lady?
The important thing to realize about Margaret Thatcher is what a remarkable phenomenon she was. She fought her way up from a very modest background purely by merit, determination and hard work, at a time — the 1950s and 1960s — when women politicians were very few, mainly unmarried or childless and usually confined to “feminine” portfolios like education or government price controls. While her children were still very young she read for the bar, practiced as a tax lawyer, overcame the prejudice of selection committees to get herself elected to Parliament and quickly became a junior minister. Professional women juggling motherhood with demanding jobs are quite normal today; but Thatcher was a feminist pioneer long before she became prime minister.
Practically every other female world leader, not only before her but up to the present — Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi or indeed Hillary Clinton — has got there on the back of a famous father or husband. Margaret Thatcher made her own way with no such advantage, and she did it more than 30 years ago — though helped, it should be said, by a wealthy and supportive husband.
In that respect, at least, Palin and Bachmann can both claim to emulate her. Palin became governor of Alaska while her children were still young. Bachmann only launched into politics when her children were rather older; but she too was a tax lawyer before that. Palin was lucky to be catapulted into national politics when John McCain unexpectedly picked her as his running mate; Bachmann has forced herself into contention entirely by her own effort.
Thatcher was a serious politician. From her schooldays onward she knew that she could beat the men only by working harder, doing her homework and always being better briefed than her colleagues and opponents — and willing to show them up as patronizing amateurs. As she got near the top she developed a radical agenda and posed as an anti-establishment outsider; but she made her career over 16 years, under the radar, in the centrist Conservative party of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, and even at the height of her power was careful never to get too far ahead of public opinion. She was not a raving ideologue but an instinctively cautious and pragmatic politician.
Bachmann and Palin may be cannier than they sometimes appear, but they are both essentially populists who embody powerful but simple anti-Washington prejudices; their fundamentally religious motivation leads them to scorn the messy compromises of government. Thatcher, by contrast, was a deeply responsible politician. She believed, like Reagan, in cutting taxes; but she also believed in balancing the budget first, raising taxes if necessary, as she did in 1981, until she was in a position to cut them again later. She was horrified by Reagan’s irresponsible budget deficit, and did not hesitate to tell him so.
She formed a remarkable partnership with Reagan, because — unlike Tony Blair in relation to George W. Bush, for instance — she stood up to him. When she thought he was wrong — about Star Wars, for instance, the Falklands war or the 1983 invasion of Grenada — or when on occasion American policy damaged British interests, she fought him tooth and nail. Reagan respected her for that, and sometimes changed tack, to the fury of his advisors. At summits he would let her take the lead because her clarity and grasp of detail made up for his amiable wooliness. Reagan trusted Thatcher’s instinct that Mikhail Gorbachev was a new type of Soviet leader whom she — and therefore he — could “do business with.” Though she publicly gave him most of the credit, she played a major part in winning the Cold War.
Brought up during the Second World War when America and Britain together saved Europe from Nazism, and starting her career in the early days of the Cold War when America led the resistance to Communism, Margaret Thatcher was always intensely grateful to America (and correspondingly scornful of continental Europe). She would have loved to have been the leader of the Free World herself, but, since Britain’s shrunken power made that impossible, settled for being Reagan’s first lieutenant instead. It was a Soviet newspaper that dubbed her “the Iron Lady” — intended as an insult — as early as 1976: three years before she became prime minister and five before he became president. She was a truly global figure who became an icon of anti-Communism in the former Soviet Empire and beyond. By comparison, Bachmann and Palin are narrowly patriotic domestic politicians, ignorant of the world beyond America, whose appeal will never resonate worldwide.
All in all one is tempted to echo Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down of Dan Quayle when he rashly compared himself to John F. Kennedy: “Congresswoman (or Governor), you’re no Maggie Thatcher.”
John Campbell is the author of “The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, From Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister,” which will be published by Penguin on Oct. 25. The movie “The Iron Lady,” starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, will be released in December.