American Margaret

Why American conservatives miss Margaret Thatcher so much.

President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher smile as they ride an electric cart at Camp David, Maryland on Dec. 22, 1984.
President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher smile as they ride an electric cart at Camp David, Maryland on Dec. 22, 1984.

Photo by Bill Rountree/AP

Two summers ago, as it rolled out its all-economy all-the-time message, the Mitt Romney campaign borrowed a slogan from Margaret Thatcher. A Web ad appearing on news sites showed a bending unemployment line—sorry, queue—of sad-looking people in outdated clothes. Above this, the slogan: OBAMA ISN’T WORKING.

It was a loving tribute, stock photo and all, to LABOUR ISN’T WORKING, one of the slogans that elected Thatcher in 1979. “The unemployment rate in England was lower than today in the [United States],” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told me then. “No President has ever been re-elected with a net loss job record, because no President has ever had a net loss.”

Thatcher won three elections. Romney didn’t. Already, the loss of Thatcher is being felt more acutely among American conservatives than the defeat of that nice businessman with the wingtips and the gaffes. Romney was brought low by suggesting that voters who felt “entitled” or got “gifts” from the state would vote Democratic. Republicans denounced him. Imagine if he’d said, “there’s no such thing as society” or “no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions” or “it’s exciting to have a real crisis on your hands.”

American conservatives viewed Thatcher as a saint, and as an example. By the late 1970s, they saw the United Kingdom as a cautionary tale of what happened when socialism came to a market economy—and when both parties went along with it. In 1976, the Labour government went “cap in hand to the IMF” for a bailout. In 1977, American Spectator editor-in-chief R. Emmett Tyrell published The Future That Doesn’t Work, a collection of essays about the obvious decline of Great Britain. After Thatcher won, as Charles Krauthammer told Politico, “her example in a much more far-left country and an even more sclerotic economy really sent a message that it can be done.”

That’s why American conservatives have largely won the argument about Thatcher. They’ve had less luck copying her. The chief reason is that the United Kingdom in the late 1970s was far more ruined than the United States in 2013. In 1979, after 34 years of nationalization, the state effectively owned the gas industry, the steel industry, the airline industry, the rest of the energy industry, and even Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. That’s all been sold off now, and the state won’t own them again. (In 1995, the Labour Party nixed “clause 4,” the line of its constitution that committed the party to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”)

Could conservatives copy Thatcher on taxes? In one way, no: She came in with a higher baseline for cuts. Today, Paul Ryan pledges to lower the nightmarish 39.6 percent top income rate to 25 percent. Thatcher was greeted by a top tax rate of 83 percent; she cut it to 60 percent. In 1988, the last year she really moved the numbers, the top rate fell to 40 percent and the bottom rate to 25 percent.

But that wasn’t all she did. Budgets in Washington don’t mean much anymore—the president proposes his, the Republicans propose theirs, and after some slap-fights about ideology and principles they just spend a bunch of money. Budgets in Westminster are announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and then … well, that’s it. You win the election, you govern. (And in Britain’s functional three-party system, you can win without a popular majority. Thatcher’s greatest victory came in 1983, when the Tories won 43.9 percent of the vote and the left had split between Labour and the Social Democratic Party. Add this to the list of things American conservatives can’t copy.)

That was how Thatcher was able to move so much more rapidly than Reagan, and that was how she made her tax cuts add up. Those 1979 cuts were paid for by a near-doubling of the sales tax, from 8 percent to 15 percent. America’s conservatives don’t know what to do about the sales tax. In the hands of Herman Cain, it became, briefly, part of a populist-sounding economic plan that would only punish the freeloaders.

But no one who actually leads the GOP buys into this. Here, the VAT is a looming danger from the liberals who want to fund an expanded welfare state. Could the United Kingdom have drawn this down if Thatcher was willing to unwind the National Health Service? Well, possibly, but we know that a 1982 proposal to do just that—viewed sympathetically by Thatcher—had to be completely denounced, again and again. Today’s Republicans want their party to repeal Obamacare and its mandates whenever they next take power. They want taxes to be flatter, but it was a revolt against a sort of flat tax that ended Thatcher’s premiership. She found out how far she could take libertarian economics, then ran up against the barriers.

So Republicans accentuate the positive. Joe Lhota, who’s running for mayor of New York, celebrated Thatcher for understanding “the power of individual freedom versus the tyranny of government collectivism.” She proved that a miserable, statist political consensus was wrong, and how often does that happen? She did this with conviction. In The Path to Power, her memoir of the years before 1979, Thatcher remembered reading Friedrich Hayek and other conservative or libertarian authors whom the commies couldn’t stand. “By their wonderful mockery of socialist follies,” she wrote, “they … gave us the feeling that the other side simply could not win in the end. That is a vital feeling in politics; it eradicates past defeats and builds future victories.”

She could distinguish between the two. After Tony Blair took power, after—for the first time—a Labour government didn’t try to nationalize more industry, Thatcher was asked about her greatest achievement. Her apocryphal answer: “New Labour.” She won, and she realized she won, and Britain’s social democrats couldn’t really contest the point. Their Conservative Party has moved on, racing away from Thatcher’s “Victorian” views on gay rights, embracing climate science, even changing the party logo from a blue torch to an impressionist green tree. Thatcher’s American admirers might evolve, too.