Margaret Thatcher was an inspirational — and, ultimately, transformational — leader. She brought Britain back from the brink of economic oblivion and made the U.K. a respected world power once again.
In the United Kingdom, the liberation of the Falkland Islands is seen as Thatcher’s greatest foreign policy triumph. When Argentina invaded and illegally occupied the British territory in 1982, many in Thatcher’s inner circle argued that the islands were not worth fighting for, and that retaking them would be difficult if not impossible.
But Thatcher had an unshakable belief in liberty, in the responsibility of a nation to defend those under its protection, and in the absolute need to defend Britain’s sovereign rights. She proceeded to lead her country to victory and give Britons a reason to feel proud of their country.
In the United States, Thatcher will always be remembered for her close friendship with President Ronald Reagan. She was also a firm believer in the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship.” Indeed, she loved America and everything it stands for. And when she teamed up with Reagan, they were unstoppable — a powerful force for good in the world.
Together Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought an end to the Soviet Union and lifted the yoke of tyranny from Eastern Europe. She understood the important role of Western values and beliefs in the face of communist authoritarianism. Like Reagan, she believed in peace through strength.
In an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, she said, “Wars are not caused by the buildup of weapons. They are caused when an aggressor believes that he can achieve his objectives at an acceptable price.” She was right then, and she is right now.
In the end, the values, ideas, and vision that Reagan and Thatcher shared turned out to be more powerful than any military force N.A.T.O. would ever need to use. The ideas of democracy, human rights, free markets, and strong defense — values the United States and the United Kingdom are blessed with and hold so dear — liberated Eastern Europe.
The end of the Cold War brought freedom to untold millions of people who had been oppressed by the Soviet Union. But it is important to remember that the Cold War did not end on its own. The outcome of the Cold War was never guaranteed. It was won because the ideas of freedom trumped oppression and because both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher believed in peace through strength.
The collapse of the Soviet Union — an event that resulted in millions of people finally having a say in their destiny — is, perhaps, one of the most profound legacies of our time.
While many Americans will remember Thatcher for her many achievements on the world stage, we should not forget her pivotal role in reviving a moribund British economy.
Throughout most of the 1970s, the British economy was in dire straits. Under the leadership of Labor Party Prime Minister James Callaghan, the U.K. had to go, cap in hand, to the International Monetary Fund for what was at that time the organization’s largest bailout. By the time Thatcher came to power in 1979, the U.K. was considered “the sick man of Europe.”
Thatcher’s policies were designed to promote economic growth, individual liberty, and personal empowerment. Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron, says that those policies “saved our country.” By the time Thatcher left office in 1990, income was up among all levels of U.K. society, and Britain was once again on sound financial footing.
Implementing those economic policies was no easy task. Thatcher believed that leadership was not a popularity contest, and that doing the right thing sometimes meant doing the unpopular thing. In 1981, 364 eminent British economists published a letter in The Times of London saying that her economic policies would not work. But Thatcher was sure she was right and her critics were wrong. She stuck to her guns and lifted the U.K. out of its economic abyss.
Thatcher was able to ignore the naysayers because she was a leader of conviction and beliefs. She wasn’t always popular but, crucially, she knew that making the right decision and sticking to it would, in the end, prove the best course of action for all. Unlike many politicians today on both sides of the Atlantic, she was driven not by news headlines but by a burning desire to do what was best for her country.
To Margaret Thatcher, leadership was about selflessly acting in the best interests of those she was leading. It was about inspiring and motivating those around her to achieve a common goal. Maybe this is the biggest lesson today’s politicians could learn from the Iron Lady.
Luke Coffey, a foreign affairs expert specializing in transatlantic relations, is the Margaret Thatcher Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.