LONDON — When the Athenians sent Themistocles into exile in 470 BC, they conveniently forgot everything he had done for them. It was he who had created the Athenian navy, held the Persians at Artemisium and finally defeated them at Salamis. It was he who had fortified Athens and made it the most prosperous city of the Aegean. His work was continued by Pericles, (without whose energy and public spirit the democratic traditions of Athens would certainly have been destroyed). But Pericles also was driven from office, tried on trumped-up charges and threatened with exile.
Democracies have a natural tendency to turn against their saviors. It happened to Winston Churchill. It happened to Charles de Gaulle, and now it has happened to Margaret Thatcher. It was not the faults of those great leaders that caused their downfall but their virtues. Thatcher, like Themistocles, has been overthrown by the resentment of her inferiors. For in a democracy, inferior people have power.
When she took office in 1979, it looked as though Britain was in a state of terminal decline. The trade unions, with power to bring down the elected government, were busy accumulating privileges for their largely idle membership. The country had no foreign policy to speak of, had irresolutely entered the European Community without any conception of the political cost and could no longer be relied upon to defend itself. Socialist mandarins reigned in the civil service, in the schools and in the universities, while more than half the gross national product was absorbed in public expenditure. Industry was crippled by strikes, and whole sections of the economy, run by central government, were protected from competition and maintained in a state of bankruptcy.
When it came to communism, our leaders either maintained an embarrassed silence or made craven offers of friendship. For the Labor Party, the Soviet Union was a "socialist" state that had slightly deviated from its good intentions while remaining a friend of the working class. The threat to peace came from our habit of defending ourselves, in the face of which the poor Soviets could only reply in kind.
In short, Britain was ready to surrender all that it stood for: its pride, its enterprise, its ideals of freedom and citizenship, even its national defense. The country wallowed in collective guilt feelings, reinforced by the dependency culture of the welfare state.
Thatcher changed all that. She compelled the British people to recognize that the individual's life is his own and the responsibility of living it cannot be borne by anyone else, still less by the state. She released the talent and enterprise that, notwithstanding decades of egalitarian claptrap, still exist in British society. She broke the power of the unions, exposing such men as Arthur Scargill, leader of the mine workers, for the Stalinists they are. She restored our national pride and sense of sovereignty, first by resisting the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, second by countering the Soviet threat and exposing the peace movement as a part of it, and third by defying the ambitions of the Eurocrats. She began to reform the education system, opposing the socialist apparatchiks who control it and holding up their "progressive" curriculum to scorn. She even took on the welfare state itself, trying to persuade people that their lives could be better, freer and simpler without this great cancer on the national economy, which benefits nobody so much as those appointed to control it.
Those achievements led to her downfall. Anyone who threatens the dependency culture in Britain threatens the Establishment: the media, the universities, the schools, the welfare services, the vast heap of redundant civil servants. The chattering classes rose up in alarm, recognizing that Thatcher's triumph would be their destruction. Nobody was more disturbed than my university colleagues: For decades they have enjoyed financial security with no real obligations. They are natural believers in the state that nourishes them, and natural socialists when it comes--as occasionally happens--to exercising their minds. Acting together with their friends in the media, such people have created the myth of Thatcher as an "uncaring" and bossy woman, armed with Victorian values and a handbag. In fact she threatens nobody but the parasites.
But the relentless campaign of denigration has at last paid off. The Tories, in a fit of nerves, have followed the rest of the nation in preferring mediocrity to excellence. And, like the Athenians, they are sure to regret it.