Like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher seems to be growing in stature as time goes by. Some of those who dislike their politics but acknowledge their influence deal with that by glossing over their legacy — as the movie "The Iron Lady" did — or by arguing that they were, in reality, crypto-socialists who were not all that interested in smaller government and free markets.
In accepting her recent Oscar for playing Britain's first and only woman prime minister, actress Meryl Streep did not even bother to mention Thatcher. That came as no surprise to Lord Norman Tebbit, who worked with the latter in government for six years.
"The film was about Meryl Streep, not Lady Thatcher. If Margaret Thatcher had been like the woman portrayed by Meryl Streep, she wouldn't have lasted six months as prime minister," Tebbit told the British paper The Sun.
The real story seems much more compelling than the movie version. Just read Claire Berlinski's fascinating 2008 book, "'There Is No Alternative': Why Margaret Thatcher Matters" (Basic Books). This is one tough, cocky and not very likable politician. Unlike Reagan, she did not smooth the edges of her passionate beliefs with mellow geniality.
Perhaps the two most famous things Thatcher ever said she never really said, but they speak volumes about her values and regal self-confidence:
1. "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money (to spend)."
2. "As God once said, and I think rightly ..."
When she came to power, Britain was shabby and gray, in financial distress, broken down by years of policies that discouraged individual initiative and business development, while trying to improve people's lives through intrusive bureaucratic planning and control. After she forced reforms, Britain's economy took off and London resumed its place as the world's financial capital.
At the core of this revolution was Thatcher's strident belief in free markets — not for the sake of selfishness or even efficiency in growing wealth, but because she believed capitalism to be morally superior to every other system. Capitalism rewards hard work, initiative, imagination, creativity and is based on individuals' free choices. It encourages personal responsibility, which tends to strengthen each individual and make society more just. The freedom to achieve, she believed, made Britain great.
In her view, socialism — government ownership of key businesses, and attempts to redistribute wealth through draconian taxation — is immoral.
"The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior. It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility and his capacity to choose," she said.
"Surely this is infinitely preferable to the socialist-statist philosophy which sets up a centralized economic system to which the individual must conform, which subjugates him, directs him and denies him the right to free choice."
She did not try to hide those values. Berlinski recounts that when a notorious Congolese Communist visited 10 Downing St., Thatcher glared at him and declared, "I hate Communists."
The mortified, stammering translator rendered her words: "Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx."
In taking on powerful interests dedicated to a government-command system, most notably unions, Thatcher knew that she would open herself to attack.
The class snobbery of some critics, who savaged her clothing and style, is striking, including by the standards of today's political invective. Theater producer Jonathan Millar scorned her "odious suburban gentility," while philosopher Mary Warnock disparaged her "neat, well-groomed clothes and hair, packaged together in a way that's not exactly vulgar, just low," embodying "the worst of the lower-middle-class."
Yet her colleagues were impressed by the way she more than held her own with such world figures as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
She was not one of the boys — she was "one of the men," adviser John Hoskyns noted, whether the men liked it or not. "She could just walk the world stage by then, looking like a million dollars, with a fur hat on, in Warsaw, through the snow, and we thought — this woman was a star!"
I doubt they ever will, but they could make a pretty good movie out of the real story.
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Edward Achorn is deputy editor of The Providence Journal editorial pages.