TYRRELL: Reflections on the Iron Lady

‘Essentially pragmatic and empirical’

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On the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s death, there is widespread admiration and even applause for her premiership, but surely there ought to be gratitude, too. After all, without her — and without President Reagan — the poor would be much poorer and without hope of bettering themselves. That was socialism’s notion of equal opportunity. Moreover, we might all be living in a world devastated by nuclear war. I do not know what the conditions of that world would be, but I am grateful not to live in it, and my guess is that the vast majority of inhabitants of the former Soviet Union and its satellites are grateful, too.

Of course, there are some who wish that Mrs. Thatcher had never lived. They think that the poor are poor because of her (and Mr. Reagan), and as for the post-Cold War world, I have not a clue as to what they think. Maybe they attribute today’s peace among the world’s nuclear powers to Mikhail Gorbachev or to the tooth fairy. They certainly do not thank Mrs. Thatcher or that stupid actor. 

The enduring existence of Mrs. Thatcher’s critics is proof that, just as Scripture says “the poor you shall always have with you,” so will you always have those who exploit the poor. By that I mean the welfare workers, the endless squads of counselors, the theoreticians of poverty, and, forget not, those popinjays who feel very good about themselves because they can abominate those who really have done something about poverty. I have in mind Mrs. Thatcher and her co-conspirator, President Reagan, who got their countries’ economies going again, providing jobs and — when needed — relief for the down and out.

Today, we in the West do not really have many poor souls who are destitute. We may have those who live in hardship, and we certainly have those who live in relative deprivation from the rest of us. Yet real destitution is difficult to detect even in back alleys, and there are limits to what can be done for such sad cases. As for the modern poor — those who live in relative deprivation — they are better off today because of the productive economies that Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan opened up. Today, these poor have at least the hope of improving their lot, particularly if in America we can rid ourselves of the slow-growth economy vouchsafed us by our current president from the community action wing of the Democratic Party. I remember very well Mrs. Thatcher’s riposte to one of the bien pensants in Parliament who was berating her for the gap between the rich and the poor. She replied: “You’d rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich.” Her line still rings true in Britain, and in America. President Obama would rather have the rich’s wealth taxed into the government maw than spent productively and freely in the private sector by investing and spending for goods and services. 

In the long years of her retirement, there were many occasions on which to meet and to be in her audience. She was always astute, often original, and always she spoke from principle and experience. She was, as Paul Johnson has written in his memorial piece on her in The Wall Street Journal, “essentially pragmatic and empirical” — not ideological. One meeting with her stands out in my mind. It was in November 1996, at her London office. She was in retirement but not inert. She had flown in from Beijing four days earlier, and on this snowy morn she wanted to talk. She had the bottomless energy of all great politicians. She briskly shook hands with the pretty blonde I had brought along and hustled me into her office — without the blonde. 

Thereupon she commenced a two-hour discourse on the world and recent history, beginning with her observations from China. Though she had plenty of American publications at hand, she wanted to know about American current events, Bill Clinton in particular. She had her views on the recently re-elected president. “If Clinton is brought down,” she pronounced, “it will be a disgrace for America; if he is not brought down, it will be a disgrace for America.” I told her bringing him down was getting a little risky. His White House was not very friendly. In 14 months, his Justice Department would make its move on The American Spectator. She turned to me and with rising voice said: “Your principles are all that you have or all that you need to see you through.” 

That was enough of a pep talk for me. I departed Lady Thatcher’s office steeled to my duty. She most graciously signed a book for my lady friend, who in a year-and-a-half became my wife, about the time the Justice Department made its move. 

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of the American Spectator and adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.

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