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Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Moral Leadership

In the wake of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death, the reaction has been impassioned on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Some praised her as a visionary, instrumental in Great Britain’s economic renaissance and the fall of the Communism. Others, exemplified by the mass reaction on Twitter—“ding dong the witch is dead” —derided her as a spiteful technocrat who misused British military might and created wealth on the backs of the working class. For the moment, I’ll refrain from defending Thatcher’s specific policies (although the pieces by Charles Cooke at the National Review and the editorial board of The Economist are worth a read) and focus rather on the quality and the impact of her leadership. It is undeniable that when Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, Great Britain and the U.S. were faced with two distinct yet inexorable crises. The first was a stagnant economy, complicated in England by racial tension, union strife and increasing state control. The second was simply the Cold War—the increasing influence of the Soviet Union posed both a military and philosophical threat to the West, and particularly to the type of free-market philosophy Thatcher championed. Faced with the same set of challenges and similar opposition, Thatcher and Ronald Reagan became fast friends and allies. Peggy Noonan recalls Reagan and Thatcher’s first meeting in 1978 when Thatcher was still Leader of the Opposition. “She’d make a magnificent prime minister, Reagan said. The fellow said, ‘a woman?’ Reagan reminded him of a queen named Victoria who’d done rather well.” Thatcher, for her part, upon Reagan’s first trip to Great Britain as president, noted a portrait of King George III hanging on wall and suggested it was best to let bygones be bygones, highlighting “our two countries’ remarkable friendship in succeeding years.” This geopolitical relationship would be mirrored by their own friendship. Faced with significant challenges and entrenched opposition, Thatcher and Reagan went about changing policy by first changing minds. Rather than appease those who favored more state control of the economy or who thought the Soviet Union itself should be appeased, Thatcher and Reagan went about making the moral argument for free-market capitalism and against communism. They did this because to them, free-market capitalism was not a theory, nor was it a negotiating position, but a moral imperative. But this was not a universal belief. Some saw the economic struggles of the 1970s as a sign that traditional ideas of western free-market economies were no longer suited to deal with an increasingly globalized marketplace. At the same time, many saw the Cold War scenario as a permanent reality, with the Soviet Union- and Communist-dominated East permanently counterbalancing the U.S.-dominated West. And yet, Thatcher and Reagan accepted neither of these realities as permanent, a “heretical notion,” as Craig Shirley points out. The eight years that both served as leaders of their respective countries was one of the most significant periods in modern U.S. history. As Reagan Attorney General Dick Thornburgh put it, “Their joint efforts in pursuing an unflinching opposition to the collectivist philosophy, which had gained widespread allegiance in the post-second world war era, and by standing up to Soviet aggression when it counted, the United States and the United Kingdom stood shoulder to shoulder in consistently championing the rule of law, democracy, freedom and human rights.” Thatcher and Reagan implemented policies that changed the moral and intellectual fabric of the West. And they did it in a way—and believed that it was the only way—soaked in moralistic, even Christian virtue; virtues like “thrift, self-discipline, responsibility, pride in and obligation to one’s community.” And as Michael Gerson points out, this type of moral leadership was necessary. A society that supports the free market and stands in willful opposition to communism was necessary to return the West to its preeminent standing. But, “freedom requires virtues it does not produce and may even help undermine. Which is why Thatcher the free marketer needed to be Thatcher the moralist.” The same can be said for Reagan. I hesitate to say we need more leaders like Thatcher and Reagan; they were unique in both their skill and their timing. They were exactly the leaders that both the United States and Great Britain needed at that time in their history. But our leaders can learn from them the benefits of moral leadership—of standing up for what is right in the face of entrenched opposition and even derision. John Kenneth Galbraith once said “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” Thatcher and Reagan did this, in a fashion unique in both fervor and simplicity. But as Major Garrett pointed out, both of them, along with Pope John Paul II, suffered from dementia in the late stages of their lives and “none of them could remember all they did of what they had achieved.” While saddening, it almost may have been the most fitting end to these leaders’ lives. Their moral leadership was a type not burdened by the whims of contemporary criticism or praise. It was a leadership judged by the passing of time and the verdict of history. May they rest in peace.