Margaret Thatcher was next to Churchill, the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. She was, next to Ronald Reagan, the greatest leader of my lifetime.
That first statement is arguable, though I think just barely. The second is true without a doubt. Margaret Thatcher died today at age 87; she'd been in poor health for some time, and one knew the end was coming, but it was still a shock to read about it this morning. Thatcher was a woman of her convictions - rare among politicians of her era, virtually extinct among politicians today. She sought not only to govern, but to overturn a system which appeared beyond salvation. It is difficult today to appreciate just how broken things were in Britain when she took over; they were far different when she left office. Some will say that her changes were for the worse; I beg to disagree.
They called her the "Iron Lady," and she took it as a compliment. She was the anti-Oprah, a woman who governed based on principle rather than emotion, who was concerned with doing what she thought was right rather than trying to make people "feel good." In fact, I doubt very much that she ever asked any of her cabinet ministers how they "felt" about things. "What do you think?" she would have been more likely to say. She and Reagan were ideological soul mates and, along with Pope John Paul II, made up a triumvirate that helped bring down Communism. They were larger than life, and that is most assuredly a rarity in this day and age.
Being larger than life has its downsides, however, one that all three share to one extent or another. It is one thing to transform a nation, a cause, a movement; it is another thing to be a transformational leader. Reagan and Thatcher shared the problem of succession within their parties; just as Reagan was followed by the weak George H.W. Bush and then the Democrat Bill Clinton, Thatcher was succeeded by the weak John Major and then the disastrous Tony Blair. The Republicans' stock remains low today because it's seen not as the party of Reagan but of George W. Bush; the Conservatives are led not by a Thatcherite but by David Cameron, who may lead the party to extinction the way he's going. Only JPII had a successor who built upon his legacy, but with the transition from Benedict XVI to Francis only God knows where the Church will wind up.
I've always said it was a privilege to have lived in Reagan's time, and the same can be said for Thatcher. Would that there were leaders today - even leaders with whom I don't agree - who were so firm in their beliefs, who actually believed in something other than which way the public opinion polls were blowing. You might not have liked the lady, but you knew where she stood. And, more often than not, for the opposition she stood over their defeated bodies. Put bluntly, she had more balls than any one of them.
At the 1980 Conservative Party conference, Thatcher confronted those who urged her to make a "U-turn" in her policies given the outspoken opposition of the Labour and Liberal parties. She replied, "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the 'U-turn', I have only one thing to say: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." That is as fine, and true, an epitaph as anyone could ask for. ◙