Margaret Thatcher was one of the greats of our time. She came to office when the UK was on its knees and needed a Prime Minister to pull the UK out of the economic mire. In doing so, she became an inspiration to millions of freedom loving citizens around the world. Her basic theme was that economic freedom was an essential ingredient of political freedom. Thatcher was a true believer in free markets and, in consequence, she wanted the economy to be guided by citizens not government bureaucracies. Her objective was not so much driven by ideology but the belief in a system that actually worked in practice to promote jobs growth and higher living standards. It is a quest that still drives many people around the globe.
A lot of people still yearn for a Thatcherite leader. I can’t help but look at today’s political landscape and wonder why the western democracies have not been able to produce the leaders needed now to drag the first world out of its economic troubles. Just when they needed a real leader, the US voted for Obama, a good man in many ways but not a man with a feel for economic management. If ever the Tories should have won in a landslide, the UK ended up with a minority government and David Cameron. I never liked Cameron since one of his whips told me that when organising a function at which Thatcher and Cameron (the then Opposition leader) were to sit side by side, Cameron insisted that he not sit next to the “Iron Lady”. His tactic in his Opposition days was to distance himself from Thatcher. One of the few times he was seen with Thatcher in public was only after Gordon Brown stood on the steps with her at Downing Street. I did not forget Cameron for that either – but it demonstrates that for a conviction politician like Thatcher it is difficult not only dealing with the official Opposition but with your own team as well. Too many politicians today approach issues with the question being how to manage the politics of the decision to be made. Thatcher’s approach was to decide what was right first and then work out the politics. The former represents the pursuit of personal interest; the latter is the pursuit of national interest.
Whilst Thatcher’s resolve in dealing with the Argentinians over the Falklands affirmed her “Iron Lady” status, Thatcher’s contest with militant unionism in the early 1980’s was a reason why the UK public came to respect her as a leader. The same thing happened with Ronald Reagan who stood up to the flight controllers in the US. In Australia, todays politicians shy away from a political argument with the union movement. Major reform is not expected until a second term if the Coalition is elected in September. In the UK, Thatcher was elected in 1979 and introduced labour reforms in 1980, 1982 and 1984. Thatcher never blinked when she faced the miner’s violent strikes, the Wapping dispute and the eventual reform of the docks.
Whether you call it economic rationalism or Thatcherite economics or otherwise, Thatcher’s proselytising of good economics encouraged not just right wing politics but many others from across the political spectrum. Both sides of politics in NZ were certainly influenced by Thatcherism. The first major economic reforms in NZ, like privatisation, were introduced by the Lange Labor government and in particular the treasurer, Roger Douglas. NZ was like the UK, in dire economic circumstances and the Douglas reforms basically saved the day. NZ was then lucky because when the inevitable change of government arrived, the incoming Nationals picked up from where Douglas left off. The issue that Lange had been unable to confront was labour market reform. The Nationals then abolished NZ’s compulsory arbitration system that had for years burdened Australia and NZ. The next NZ Labour government left individual agreements in place.
Similarly in the UK when John Major finally lost office to Tony Blair some of the structural reforms of Thatcher years were kept. Blair never overturned Thatcher’s labour market reforms. When I was arguing for labour reform in the Howard years in the late 1990s my favourite speech was to quote Tony Blair speaking to the UK Trade Union Council and compare Blair’s speech to Kim Beasley at the ACTU promising to overturn not just the reforms from 1996 but Keating’s minor reforms as well.
It will be a long time before we see anyone in Thatcher’s class and it beats me why the Poms will only give her a ceremonial funeral when a State funeral is the highest honour. No wonder the UK needed the daughter of a grocer when all they had were blokes still worrying about their old school ties.