The Iron Lady's Work Is Still in Progress

THATCHER'S back. An unavoidable presence if not a required taste, she is making the rounds on the Larry King show, the lecture circuit, and at the bookstores, defending her record, causing trouble for John Major, and signing copies of her memoirs.

Margaret Thatcher is a tireless self-promoter (what successful politician is not?), but she is also much more. Unlike the current crop of Western leaders, Mr. Major and Bill Clinton included, the woman who refers to "Winston" as if she had been Churchill's intimate has stood unequivocally for forceful intervention in Bosnia. Even those who object that we might be up to our knees in blood if Lady Thatcher prevailed have to admit that at least she does not judge good and evil by the opinion polls.

The Conservative Party Mrs. Thatcher led and transformed is still in power 16 years after her historic victory in 1979. This is a long run on anyone's scorecard. But how long will it prevail? What will become of her legacy?

When Thatcher came to office in 1979, the nation that had pioneered the industrial revolution and built the greatest empire of modern times was afflicted with the "British disease." This set of political and economic ills included sluggish productivity, labor strife, inadequate capital investment, paltry research and development, and stagflation. The fact that "industrial action" had come to mean strikes, work-stoppages, slowdowns, and extended tea breaks was a sign of the times. Labour blamed the Tories and the Tories blamed Labour.

In fact, there was plenty of blame to go around, for Britain's relative decline had taken place over the course of a century. Unlike many politicians, though, the grocer's daughter, who grew up in middle England, refused to accept that her task was the management of decline.

Thatcher's aim was to awaken Britain in order to reverse its decline and to make it great once more. A self-styled "conviction politician," she rejected the postwar "progressive consensus" that both major parties supported, more or less: a welfare state with a mixed economy, full employment, and labor peace. The Iron Lady's ability to revive her rusty realm hinged partly on her ability to effect a cultural transformation.

She wanted to eradicate an entrenched bias against industry that originated with Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and eventually pervaded the professional elite. She was also determined to turn back the eroding tide of socialism that in her view had made Britain a "dependency culture" in which individuals looked to the state for cradle-to-grave care. An idealized, mythic view of "Victorian values" tinged Thatcher's vision of restoring Britain's "enterprise culture." Nevertheless, how to foster a productive work ethic in a welfare state is a genuine problem on both sides of the Atlantic.

Newt's political godmother

Her antidote to the British disease was to launch a capitalist revolution. From 1979 to 1990, she fought to undo socialism, contain the welfare state, domesticate the trade unions, privatize nationalized industry, enliven the free market, and stoke the entrepreneurial spirit. Riches without embarrassment; self-help without guilt. If Ronald Reagan is the spiritual father of Newt Gingrich and the Republican right, Thatcher is its political godmother.

"The mission of this government," Thatcher announced soon after taking office, "is much more than the promotion of economic progress. It is to renew the spirit and solidarity of the nation." The Thatcher government managed to arrest relative economic decline and improve the majority standard of living. But the capitalist revolution remained incomplete. Trade union reform helped restore economic order, but it did not provide a productive means for worker participation. Privatization lifted the dead hand of the state from nationally owned firms such as the Jaguar division of British Leyland. It proved less appropriate, however, in public utilities such as water and gas that demand careful regulation for the public good.

And Thatcher did not get to the bottom of a host of structural problems, notably the lack of sufficient investment and of a substantial and highly skilled labor force. Whatever economic progress she facilitated came at the price of social solidarity. Economic polarization, class conflict, and social inequities became the order of the day in Thatcher's Britain as in Reagan's America.

Her capitalist revolution ultimately failed to effect the cultural transformation she sought. She was more successful in discrediting socialism than in legitimizing capitalism. The quest to create a culture with positive attitudes toward enterprise, profit, and growth alienated the so-called chattering classes. Intellectuals disliked the prime minister's no-nonsense style and objected, with reason, to her cuts in education, the arts, and social welfare.

Even so, Thatcher altered the shape of British politics. For the moment at least, John Major's Conservative government is still in power. In the recent leadership contest he precipitated, Major fought off a challenge from John Redwood, then minister for Wales. The man Major vanquished is irreproachably Thatcherite, but Major himself is not. Although Major was her hand-picked successor, all the signs suggest that he has been a severe disappointment to the Iron Lady. She has sniped at him, overtly and covertly, in speeches and, for good measure, in her recent memoirs.

The issue that has rent the Conservative Party, dividing Thatcher and Major, is to what extent Britain should throw itself into an increasingly federal Europe. Faced with the centralizing vision of former European Commissioner Jacques Delors, Thatcher cried out, "No, no, no." By contrast, Major has wavered, refusing to say one way or another whether he would abandon the pound sterling in favor of a common European currency.

Having watched Britain lose so much power and prestige during the 20th century, the Thatcherite right cannot bear the prospect of another loss. They fear that a united Europe will sacrifice British sovereignty and risk British identity.

The critics notwithstanding, Major's victory suggests that he has the best chance of keeping the warring wings of the Conservative Party together. And his gutsy gamble shows that he has grit if not charisma. Ultimately, however, the Tories have more to fear from Her Majesty's Opposition than from their own ranks.

Labour transformed too

If Thatcher's war on European centralization continues to haunt the Tories, her capitalist revolution all but forced the Labour Party to the center. Led by Tony Blair, "New Labour" is the odds-on favorite to win the next general election (which has to take place no later than 1997). He is a Clintonesque figure, but without a hint of scandal (more Clearwater than Whitewater). Mr. Blair has distanced the Labour Party from the trade unions, repealed the party's constitutional commitment to nationalization, and made peace with the free market. Like the Margaret Thatcher of 1979, he offers general principles rather than detailed politics and presents himself as the agent of change rather than the bulwark of tradition. But Blair's beguiling vision promises to balance competition and compassion.

Even Thatcher has spoken warmly of Blair's leadership qualities. He returned the compliment, admitting the Iron Lady had got "certain things right," one of which was "breaking up some of the vested interests." Blair claims to look forward to taking up the antiestablishment banner. At any rate, he is a political moderate, a far cry from the Labour Party of the early 1980s whose election manifesto was described by one of their own as "the longest suicide note in history."

However likely it seems that Tony Blair will form the next Labour Government by 1997, several questions remain. Will the Tories manage to remove the hatchets from one another's backs in time to tar "new Labour" with old Labour's tax-and-spend brush? Will British voters become nervous at the thought of electing a Labour government whose leaders have little, if any, ministerial experience? Or will they receive a satisfactory response to the question of what the Labour Party stands for now that it has moved away from socialism?

Chances are that at long last the political pendulum in Britain is swinging to the left. But the swing does not promise to be severe enough to knock out the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher's capitalist revolution.

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