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ENDPAPERS

Thinking Thatcher as Bush Begins

January 22, 1989|DAVID WILLIAMS | Williams is London correspondent for Tokyo Business Today

At the beginning of Tom Clancy's best-selling "Patriot Games," the American hero picks up a copy of The Economist from a London news agent. A bit of local color for many American readers, the purchase is for others a coded signal; the literary equivalent of a Masonic handshake or a wink in a singles bar.

More copies of this British news weekly are sold in America than in Britain itself. As Time and Newsweek have moved down market, The Economist has replaced them as the serious reader's guide to the news. So in a decade when the Pacific Century has threatened to break out almost daily, it is an Atlantic publication, launched in the 19th Century, that has won unprecedented influence in future-obsessed America. Why?

The short answer is Margaret Thatcher. It is no accident that the rise of The Economist has paralleled her apotheosis to the status of political superstar among the world's English-speaking peoples. The Economist has been the post-courier of her revolution.

This revolutionary postman has, however, a problem. In seeking to court conservative American business opinion, Economist editors have felt compelled to celebrate not only the robust achievements of the "Iron Lady," but also the less substantial pageant that has been Ronald Reagan's royal progress during the last eight years. The result has been a recurrence of what might be called our 1776 problem.

That year, as conservative commentators never tire of repeating, saw not only the birth of the American Republic but also the publication of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations." Two centuries on, however, what the Invisible Hand seems to have awarded the City on a Hill is a Toyota in every garage. And with the triumph of Japan has come the suspicion that the true prophet of 1776 was not Adam Smith but Edward Gibbon, who published, in that year, the first volume of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Between them, Smith and Gibbon define the contemporary American political arena. In the blue corner, we have the Smithians: the freshly inaugurated George Bush and his "lip-reading" practitioners of laissez - faire. In the pink corner, there are the Gibbonians: Michael Dukakis, Lloyd Bentsen and Richard Gephardt, all rank with fear for the nation's relative economic decline.

In his later years, Gibbon confessed that "the names of Pitt and Fox became less interesting to me than those of Caesar and Pompey"; but if asked to brood on the current state of the American empire, I think that the great English historian would caution Americans, and particularly our new President, with the memory of Diocletian: the Roman social conservative who temporarily turned back the forces of imperial decline by reforms that in the end only accelerated the process.

Enter Thatcher. As two recent works of political analysis have made clear, the present British prime minister, now a decade in power, is no great communicator. She describes herself as "a doer, not a talker."

What this doer has done is reverse a half century of British economic decline. After a decade of Thatcherism, the specter of 17th-Century Spanish retreat is no longer invoked against Britain. Instead, after eight years of Reaganism, it is being nosed at us. The thoughtful conservative has some explaining to do.

Doers or talkers. Like wets versus drys, it is the kind of distinction that Thatcher revels in. It draws blood. It suggests that the most important ideological distinction of the late 1980s is not between conservatives and their opponents, but between types of conservative: rhetorical, all-the-world-is-a-stage media conservatives versus the meat-eaters, the people who get things done. There is no question to which camp Thatcher belongs.

The issue is one of both style and conviction. Two vignettes from Kenneth Harris' superb political biography "Thatcher" (Little, Brown) make the point.

"At meetings," he writes, "of the traditionally powerful Tory back-bench 1922 Committee, MPs have normally remained seated when a male leader of the Party has entered the room to address them. The first time Thatcher entered the room as leader, everybody rose. According to one observer, "She made a procession to her seat, as though she expected them to remain upstanding and when she got there turned as though to say, 'Please be seated.' It was not many months after this that Norman St John-Stevas invented the title of 'Leaderene' for her."

Of her no-nonsense approach to foreign affairs, Harris observes, "Mrs. Thatcher was strictly utilitarian in these matters. If the niceties of diplomatic convention did not yield results, then there was no reason to observe them. On a later occasion, she was to say to the author (Harris), of her negotiations with the EEC (European Economic Community), 'I know nothing about diplomacy, but I just know and believe that I want certain things for Britain.' "

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