When I was a little boy, it was interestingly my mother who first connected me to my love of history and the storied greatness of certain of its participants. She was in the kitchen making a meal, when I wandered in to see if I could catch some early hint of dinner to come. Normally it would have been a certainty I would get a taste of what was to be created without much effort, but this time she seemed to be in a very serious mood. “Do you know who died today?” she asked. Being very young I had no clue; but she pressed onward. “A very great man”, she said, “Winston Churchill.” She showed me the newspaper- the entire front page was devoted to him; a large photograph of a smiling man with a cigar flashing a victory sign dominated the front fold. I was hooked – it seemed the whole world knew this man and saluted his memory. It was my first contact with greatness universally recognized and it would never leave me.
Historical greatness belonged to another British Prime Minister of the 20th century, and she, Margaret Thatcher, in many ways laid a similar stamp of recognition of greatness from all who knew her, or lived in her time on the stage. She was a warrior for the individual and liberty, a true defender of the Ramparts of Civilization that is the guts and basis for this blog. Today she passed on, and as it was with Churchill, the recognition of greatness cloaked her memory, and reminded the world of the power of those who back up their intellectual prowess with the power of their principles and the will of their conviction. At a time when all the world trembled before the darkness of fascism’s power, Churchill radiated the confidence in the eventual victory of a free people. Some three decades later, when Britain once again had become a shadow of its former self, she resurrected the concept of the power of freedom and individual aspiration, and brought that great nation and much of the free world back out of its self absorbed decline.
For those who believe all things are possible in a free society if you work hard and maintain focus, Margaret Thatcher was the poster child. Born of absolutely middle class values and capacities, she belied the perceived notion that only the elites of society could have sufficient perspective understanding of societal needs and obligations. She was a bedrock supporter of the idea of individual as owning the ultimate definition of their own existence and fate. She disdained the idiocy that stereotyped a woman who raised a family and cared for her husband as unable to compete on the stage of egos and intellect, frankly crushing her opposition time and time again in the battle of ideas and the arena of victories with nary a hair out of place on her coiffed hair or a discernible wrinkle in her immaculate dress. She was a feminist in the truest sense, leading her party and nation through turmoil and victory, not always assuming that her very presence should be proof enough of her capability (unlike a certain American female politician that has spent twenty years being available, and performing poorly when called).
Most importantly, Margaret Thatcher was a person of principles that put her actions where her principles lay. Like Ronald Reagan, and even more so, she was fully committed to standing on principles at risk of her defeat. She was a warrior for real conservatism- the concept that freedom and free will best dictate progress, and that progress is the natural evolutionary state of all streams of creativity in the arena of ideas. She was a chemist, a scientist and a barrister, and recognized that creative streams would need guidance but not correction. She knew why liberal society failed, and that its failure was the product of expectation not reality. As Milton Friedman said, and she believed so firmly, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions, rather than their results.” She was not interested in what felt good, only what worked, and she was particularly derisive of the softcoats in her own party that attempted to undertake shallow copies of their opponents programs in hopes of “appeasing” the voters. As she strongly projected at the wobbly Conservative Party congress of 1980, ” You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
She believed conservative, limited government worked, and she stood proudly for it, in the face of vicious attacks on her character. When they attempted to paint her as infeminant, calling her Iron Lady, as if her forcefulness was somehow “bitchy”, a typical weapon of liberal assassination, she overwhelmed them by grasping the moniker and making it her own. She withstood the further verbal grapeshot of the left, “racist”, ” snob”, and “hater” and put forth a conservative agenda of privatization, personal aspiration, and firm support for the law to transform the cowering Great Britain of the 1970’s crippled by strikes, moral decay, international withdrawal, and overwhelming socialist regulatory economic stagnation into an economic and independent juggernaut of the 1980’s and 1990’s. So powerful was her sway, that when the Liberal party under Tony Blair returned to power in the mid 1990’s, no effort was made to return the economic structure away from private development. The lady, it turned out, was not for turning.
The moment of great conviction and return of international influence was through her steadfast and very public defiance in the face of the twin challenges of Soviet aggression and Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. On one front she bolstered the new American President Reagan in his heretical calling out of the Soviet empire as “evil” and stating it would “end up like all totalitarian regimes on the trash heap of history”. To the other in the face of American indecisiveness, she put Great Britain squarely in the position of defending its territories in recognition of a free people, the Falkland Islanders, selecting their own determination to stay British. The once great power of Great Britain again projected halfway across the globe and achieved a victory in a way that most thought impossible without American support. Thatcher was not about to lose the British capacity to choose its own destiny, as reserved to all free people, even when her best ally could not see a shared interest, other than the philosophic one.
Like all great people, Margaret Thatcher was eventually pulled down by her implacable will, when the furtherance of that will exhausted those who continued to be held by her high standards. She was thrown out not by her people, but by her party, who made the recurrent failed argument that a continued rigorous governance on principle had exhausted the population and could no longer be supported. Once again, the pale copy of ideal over performance led to the defeat of the conservatives, by the liberals led by Tony Blair who recognized the fatal mistake and campaigned as the True Hybrid of Thatcherism and Humanism. In her later years, as she led a quiet family existence, the chance to forget her successes and rewrite history proved tempting to a media no longer afraid of her brilliance and energy for defense of ideas. To be great is to eventually be destroyed by those who could not cotton to her greatness. This proved no different for Thatcher then for her predecessor Churchill or her compatriot Reagan.
Yet death re-writes all history, and the immense imprint of a life overwhelms all superficial efforts to distort it. The call of contemporary Prime Ministers in her shadow make it clear she is a once in a lifetime figure – no perspectives on Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Major, Blair, Brown, or Cameron are likely to echo through the centuries as will the Lady Thatcher in the hallowed halls of British Parliamentary history. She was a leader of people who happened to be a woman, a deliverer of a country who happened to be a commoner, and an intellectual giant of economic governance who happened to be the grocer’s daughter. None of these stereotyped categorizations turned out to matter in the least. Let them try to knock her down. She is a force of nature that withstands all slings and arrows. Margaret Thatcher, a true defender of the Ramparts, died today at 87, but you will never see extinguished the blazing light of her effervescent star.
Be not afraid of greatness.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.
Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare