- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Has Margaret Thatcher really retired from public life for good and all? The unqualified announcement from her office that she would not make public speeches "ever" again certainly seemed to suggest so. It evoked a series of articles in the British and overseas press that read like obituaries.
Tory activists, meeting in the traditional Tory stronghold of Harrogate (a Liberal Democrat constituency in these days of reduced Tory circumstances), seemingly rejected her suggestion which appeared in the newspaper serialization of her new book that Britain might one day be forced to leave the European Union in order to preserve its constitutional liberties. And commentators added the mildly spiteful reflection that her withdrawal was of no real political significance since the Tory Party had already consigned her to history and embarked on a kinder, gentler and more compassionate conservatism.
These latter assurances lose some of their persuasive power when we recall that the same media critics have been pronouncing them with ever-increasing fervor and frequency for the last 11 years. Their wish for her positively final appearance is much too obviously father to their predictions of it.
The reason for her retreat into silence is less grim than it seems. As Lady Thatcher once said in response to an overly fulsome praise: "There's no call for an obituary. I'm not twanging a harp yet." She is threatened not with imminent death but with the lesser risk of embarrassment if she continues speechifying. A slight stroke such as she has recently suffered can result in its victim suddenly falling silent, or briefly talking nonsense.
Lady Thatcher, who privately is pretty robust about the facts of life and death, might be prepared to take such risks for an important enough reason like a national referendum on Britain's entering the European single currency. But her family, friends and advisers put her reputation first. And she has presumably yielded to their arguments that the time has come for a dignified retreat into private life. Like Ronald Reagan before her, she also accepted the new convention of medical openness, risked ridicule and bravely told the world why.
In other respects, she remains as energetic and opinionated as her opponents in all parties have feared. At her annual London party shortly before Christmas (about a week before her first small stroke), she kicked off her shoes at 7:15 p.m. and, whiskey glass in hand, strode about the room picking political arguments with her guests for the sheer fun of it.
Just three weeks ago, she engaged in a vigorous debate on the European Rapid Reaction Force with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld among others at a private lunch in Washington without any sign of the minor strokes she had presumably suffered by then. And she completed her controversial new book on foreign policy only two months ago.
Having worked with her on the two volumes of her memoirs, I can testify that this would have been a testing experience and not only for her collaborators. No one writes books or speeches for Lady Thatcher but only with Lady Thatcher. She took her memoirs more than 1,000 printed pages in all through five drafts, writing, rewriting, checking and counter-checking over every memory, fact and punctuation mark.
She may, therefore, continue to exert occasional influence through the pages of newspapers. Her literary appearances will doubtless be rare. With the exception again of a debate over the euro, however, these too will doubtless diminish over time.
Lady Thatcher knows her place in history is secure. Whatever the constantly changing valuations in the market of historical reputation, she was Britain's greatest peacetime prime minister of the 20th century and probably the last British prime minister to make a significant impact on world history. She no longer need exert herself on her own behalf.
"Thatcherism" is now established as the new status quo. If the Tory Party now needs to discover a new set of issues on which to ride to power, that is because the conversion of New Labor to free-market economics and of Tony Blair to the Anglo-American "special relationship" are among Lady Thatcher's more subtle achievements. Mr. Blair is Margaret Thatcher on Prozac except on the single issue of Britain's relationship with Europe.
When Lady Thatcher lost office 11 years ago, it was largely because of her resistance to Britain's further integration into a European state. She was seen as a forlorn opponent of an inevitable historical trend. Since then, however, Europe has become an even more divisive issue in British politics: The Tory Party is now thoroughly Euro-skeptic, and the Blair government is visibly nervous of holding a referendum on the euro.
There is plainly a deep vein of nervousness in the British over their immersion in a European Union with a much less liberal legal, political and constitutional tradition.
Having shown such prescience on Europe 11 years ago, Lady Thatcher might now reasonably ask to be heard when she predicts that the British may one day be forced to leave an illiberal European Union. The commentators are elated that even the Euro-skeptic Tories reject this and indeed avoid talking about Europe altogether. Yet the Tory strategy seems open to quite another interpretation.
The new Tory leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, himself decidedly Euro-skeptic, knows that the voters will pay no attention to the Tories on everything if they seem obsessed or wild-eyed on anything. He is, therefore, building up a capital stock of moderation on which he will draw to oppose the euro when Mr. Blair finally summons up the courage to call the referendum. Opinion polls show that he would then have a strong chance of winning.
And Lady Thatcher would then have a last silent laugh on Europe as well as on everything else.

John O'Sullivan, editor-in-chief of United Press International, served as a special adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1986 to 1988.

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