In Britain and America in the 1960s and 1970s, government's hubris expanded as its competence shrank. Like her soul mate, Ronald Reagan, Thatcher practiced the politics of psychotherapy, giving her nation a pride transplant. Reagan was responding to 17 lacerating years — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis. She was sick and tired of three decades of Britain being described as the Ottoman Empire once was, as “the sick man of Europe.” She set about disrupting settled attitudes and arrangements by enlarging and energizing the middle class, the great engine of social change in every modern society.
Before Thatcher, Britain's economic problems often were ascribed to national character, and hence were thought immune to remediation. Thatcher thought national character was part of the problem, but that national character is malleable, given bracing economic medicine. Marx's ghost, hovering over his grave in London's Highgate Cemetery, must have marveled at this Tory variant of economic determinism.
When Nature was serving up charm and convictions, Thatcher took a double serving of the latter, leaving little room on her plate for the former. But by what has been called her “matriarchal machismo” she usefully demonstrated that a soothing personality is not always necessary in democracy.
Like de Gaulle, she was a charismatic conservative nationalist who was properly resistant to what she called the European federalists' attempts to “suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the center of a European conglomerate.” She left the British this ongoing challenge: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level.” As long as her brave heart beat, she knew there are no final victories.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP