Thatcher blazed trails around the world

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“We were defending our honor as a nation and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world above all that aggressors should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force,” she would recall in her 1993 memoir, “The Downing Street Years.”

“The significance of the Falklands War was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world,” she wrote.

The resulting surge of British national pride, coupled with the first stirrings of economic recovery and a badly divided Labor opposition, led to a stunning Thatcher victory in the June 1983 election, with the Conservatives tripling their majority to 144 seats.

As with Mr. Blair, Mrs. Thatcher enjoyed massive parliamentary majorities through Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system without ever winning overwhelming popular support. She won the 1983 majority even though Conservatives took just 42.4 percent of the vote.

The dangers of her post were brought home in October 1984, when Provisional Irish Republican Army bombed the Brighton hotel where the Tories were holding their annual party conference. Mrs. Thatcher barely escaped injury, but five people, including a Conservative member of Parliament, were killed in the attack.

The prime minister insisted that the conference proceed and gave her opening address as planned the day after the attack. The next year, she would sign a landmark accord with the government of Ireland, giving Dublin for the first time a limited voice in the future of Northern Ireland.

Breaking the unions

If the Falklands War was the highlight of her first term, an epic domestic battle of wills dominated Mrs. Thatcher’s second four years in office.

Determined to break unions’ stranglehold on the British economy, she faced down a yearlong series of strikes by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 and 1985 and refused any concessions until the union leaders saw rebellion among their own members.

The labor war proved an unconditional triumph for the Conservative government, which in 1985 proceeded to shut down scores of unprofitable coal mines and privatize the rest. Britain’s trade unions never recovered from the defeat.

In an economic reform with far-reaching political consequences, Mrs. Thatcher accelerated the sell-off of unproductive state enterprises and pushed strongly to increase homeownership among ordinary Britons. While the trade union wars left Mrs. Thatcher deeply unpopular in industrial pockets of northern England and Scotland, the vastly expanded group of middle-class homeowners would provide the backbone for her political coalition.

She prized individual initiative and private enterprise, disdaining the ambitious social engineering dreams of her leftist adversaries.

Asked about those who instinctively turn to government to solve social problems, she said in a 1987 interview, “There is no such thing as society.” It was perhaps her most widely cited quote.

She continued, “There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, and then to look after our neighbor.”

Foreign policy backbone

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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