NEW YORK — I have been an unabashed admirer of Margaret Thatcher since our first meeting soon after she became leader of the British Conservative opposition in 1975. Never one to waste time on social amenities, Thatcher advanced the then startling thesis that the politics of the '70s was all wrong, indeed undemocratic.
The conventional wisdom of the time was that aspirants for office had to fight for the middle ground. Thatcher would have none of it. If all appeal to the center, she insisted, politics will turn vacuous and, in time, demagogic. The public would make its decision on a basis irrelevant to the real issues. Is it not much better, she argued, to pursue a politics of conviction? Opponents would have to either state an alternative or appear wishy-washy. That way, whatever happened, the public would have a democratic choice.
Dramatic statements by newly elected opposition leaders are not unusual. But seeing them put into practice is uncommon. As Thatcher's policy as prime minister evolved, even her most severe critics had to admit she was driven not by yesterday's opinion polls but by a desire to shape the opinion polls of tomorrow. She paid her opponents the ultimate compliment of forcing them into a passionate debate on issues.
For more than a decade, Thatcher was like a rock that breakers recoil from. At times she was accused of causing their turmoil. But in the end, now that she has left, we realize that the nature of waves is ephemeral, while the rock endures long after the roar of the waves has subsided.
With what zest she threw herself into her battles! What fun--and inspiration--to see the Iron Lady come bouncing into a room without a trace of fatigue that a decade of strenuous service had earned her, full of new ideas and free of the condescension that smaller people derive from access to classified information.
Of course, Thatcher could be quite maddening in defense of her views. It was not easy to discuss Latin American debt with her and hopeless--after the Falklands--to illustrate it with the case of Argentina. She never could overcome her distrust of Germany, not after her experiences of the blitz in World War II. And she could never be passionate about Europe; her heart was with North America.
But even when Thatcher was at her most intractable, she stood for undeniable verities. She did not see the need to spur democratic reform in Latin America by easing the austerity caused by foreign debt. But she was right in insisting on the move toward market economies as the most successful Latin American debtors--like Mexico and Chile--have done.
Thatcher's attitude toward German unification blighted Britain's relationship with the key country of the European Community. But she was correct in her perception that the dynamics of a unified Germany could not be deduced from the statements of leaders elected in a different context. And Americans will always have a special reason to remember that what she fought for in Europe was open trading systems and close transatlantic ties--the pillars of U.S. foreign policy.
It was the mixture of conviction, naivete and strength that enabled Thatcher to shape her era as has no other prime minister in this century--save the wartime Churchill. She brought about a revolution in British attitudes toward the management of the economy while giving Britain an international voice out of proportion to its economic strength.
But in the end, Thatcher's seminal contribution centered on two challenges still unresolved: the future of Western democracy and the nature of the transatlantic relationship.
It is ironic that at the moment of its triumph over communism, Western democracy faces a crisis--much what Thatcher described in 1975. With the current domestic and international upheavals, a temptation toward demagoguery develops.
As a result, the qualities required for reaching office no longer bear a necessary relationship to the qualities needed for governing. Any democratic leader must have sensitive antennae for the public mood. But in the end, a leader is judged by how well he takes his society from where it is to where it has never been.
The art of democratic leadership resides in judging correctly how far ahead of the conventional wisdom it is safe to be. If a leader confines himself to what is generally understood, he dooms his society to stagnation and himself to irrelevance. But if he gets too far ahead, he will suffer shipwreck.
This process has its built-in terminal point. Even when a remarkable leader navigates this passage--as Thatcher did for an unprecedented three elections--a point of exhaustion is reached by both the bureaucracies and the public. For the bureaucracies, run by experts relying on their knowledge of the familiar, grow restless as their conventional wisdom is under assault. And even the most tolerant electorate ultimately runs out of patience with being jolted into new effort.