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Facing Up to Post-Thatcher Life in Britain : Government: Thatcher got her message across--actions have consequences; you can't spend what you don't earn. She was good for Britain.

November 25, 1990|Michael Elliott | Michael Elliott, Washington bureau chief for the Economist, has been on assignment in South Asia

BANGKOK, THAILAND — I will not believe Margaret Thatcher is politically dead until she is buried at he crossroads at midnight, with a stake driven through her heart. But she has, after all, resigned as prime minister after her shaky showing in last week's vote by the Conservative Party caucus in Britain House of Commons, so most conventional souls would say the witching hour has arrived. It may finally be safe to consider what Britain without Thatcher will feel like, or to reflect on the scale of her achievement.

Thatcher took office in the spring of 1979. Her unbroken time at the top--including two subsequent election victories--is unparalleled in 20th-Century Britain. For no other reason than political longevity, she has earned her place in the history books.

That, of course, is not the half of it. Nor does her significance lie solely in the political philosophy called "Thatcherism"--she is the only British prime minister this century to have an "ism" named after her. Three years before she became prime minister, the Labor government of James Callaghan had appreciated that if the British economy was to prosper, public expenditure had to be cut, the labor unions had to be faced down and the old Fabian idea that the state could and should control the commanding height of the economy abandoned. Thatcher may have pursued market-driven policies with more single-mindedness than any other contemporary politician would have done--but in this respect her singularity was one of degree, not of kind.

The first measure of her true significance lies in her blunt honesty. More than most politicians dare, she lived by a few simple rules, and repeated them over and over again until they seeped into an unwilling national consciousness. The rules were: You can't spend what you don't earn; keep your guard up (it's a dangerous world out there); and, by far the most important, actions have consequences.

The last was the most significant because it asked Britain to reasses its postwar history. By the time she was elected in 1979, every Briton who deigned to cross the 22 miles of water to France knew deep down that the country had failed itself since the end of the war. The failures might have had decent reasons. After the efforts that Britain made during the war (and few outside Britain can know how all encompassing those efforts were), it was perhaps understandable to look for a breathing space. The failure might have been compounded by mistakes--like the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956--made for honorable reasons. But it was a failure none the less.

Thatcher's genius was to let the nation understand it was a British failure and nobody else's; it was the British who were myopic about what was being done elsewhere, who were deluded that a country that had once been as prosperous as any would remain that way. There was no one else to blame, and there was no one else who would save us.

At its simplest level, the creed that actions had consequences forced trade unions to appreciate that, if there were wage increases higher than productivity indicated, they would lose jobs. It forced firms who failed to invest in new markets to realize no benevolent government would bail them out. It said if you are ill-educated, wanton and loutish, don't be surprised if the world does not beat a path to your door.

Slowly, Britain got the message. The Falklands War was something of a turning point--because it showed that the prime minister was more determined than any we had known, less fainthearted and confident that Britain could still do something right.

And her yearlong struggle with the miners union, in 1984-85, showed that things really had changed. Her predecessors would have accepted a fudged compromise; she hung on and on until she won. On the back of her determination to break with the past, the economy turned around. In the late 1980s, the British economy was the fastest growing of any industrial country, and even now, in a recession, it seems to be clear that British industry is in far better shape than it has been for 30 years. Export growth remains strong.

With the new style of leadership came a new kind of Briton. In an unexpected way, Thatcher's break with the past--with both the left-wing intellectual Establishment and the old-timers of the Conservative Party, whom she loathed just as much--meant that she created a more equal society. Thatcher's "children" came out of the lower middle class--as she had done--and showed a greater self-confidence than they had ever done before.

Britain, under Thatcher, has become a more aggressive society, a more assertive one, and yet also one that, for many of its people, is more fun. People travel more, and the country as a whole has a more cosmopolitan feel. It is less reverential. It is a palpably richer place than it was 11 years ago. The new money is sometimes spent in meritritious ways that make old money shake its plaintive head in despair--but for some, that is the whole point.

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