By Lee Cohen
Originally published in The Hill
As a foreign student pursuing his MBA in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, I often heard praise from my British colleagues for our American sense of “can do” and how it translated to entrepreneurial and management success. Ironically, when I think of “can do,” however, the first person who flashes to mind is not an American but a British icon: Margaret Thatcher.
Today marks five years since we lost this towering figure who, along with Ronald Reagan, effectively led the world in the 1980s. She and Reagan set the stage for the collapse of the Iron Curtain and it was Thatcher’s vision and focus that catapulted Britain from down-on-its-luck to global strength and competitiveness. Though cliche, it is wholly accurate to say she “made Britain great again.”
So much has been written on Thatcher, but on this anniversary of her death, it is interesting to focus on the “American style” and pro-American attitude of a quintessentially British “Iron” Lady.
A grocer’s daughter from Grantham, a town 100 miles outside of London, Margaret Thatcher grew up in circumstances that did not foretell her rise to premiership but certainly shaped it. Some of her personal qualities and style that enabled her success as a leader are usually seen more on this side of the Atlantic — particularly, Thatcher’s outspokenness regarding her religious faith, her belief in free markets and privatization, her unwavering defense of her nation’s exceptionalism, and her robust advocacy for the strongest possible Anglo-American special relationship.
It should go without saying that a government leader would put his or her own nation’s interests first. While most British prime ministers have done just that, Thatcher approached the notion of national exceptionalism with a head-on, brash, almost “American” tone. It was what she was about. And, she didn’t just talk the talk; she recognized what was needed to resurrect an economically-moribund United Kingdom, whose citizens had grown used to the state picking up the slack for their woes.
Indeed, her policies of free market economy and privatization of industry (shared by Reagan and many others in the United States) were responsible for throwing off the shackles of socialism that weighed so heavily on post-war Britain.
Further light is shed on Thatcher’s core belief in Britain’s exceptionalism if one considers Britain’s main contemporary issue: its relationship with Europe. Amazingly, some Britons argue that even for her usually Eurosceptic posture, Thatcher would have been against Brexit. They use as justification her defense of the single market and her pragmatism. However, this is difficult to conceive, considering her alarm over compromises to her nation’s sovereignty — in effect, the essence of our own “Don’t tread on me” spirit.
In a 1995 speech in Washington, Thatcher revealed: “As someone who believes in Britain, in our identity and institutions, our history and our destiny, I reject the notion that we should cease to govern ourselves and pass more and more power over to European institutions and less to elected bureaucracies.”
In the same speech, she goes on to advocate for a long overdue Anglo-American trade agreement, the notion of which President Trump has enthusiastically endorsed: “I propose that Britain act to protect sovereignty and urge the creation of a North Atlantic Free Trade Area, which would underpin NATO and reverse European protectionism.”
Another “American-style” element of Thatcher’s approach was her vocal and unapologetic evocation of her Christian faith. While a strong religious basis underpins the principles of many Western leaders, modern British politicians other than Thatcher have been less willing to express their religious foundations than was she. In stark contrast, Tony Blair was counseled by his senior advisor Alistair Campbell to not address his faith in public questioning. Campbell warned him: “We [the British people] don’t do God.” It even emerged that “Mr. Blair was prevented by his advisers from ending his address to the nation at the start of hostilities in Iraq with the message: ‘God bless you.’”
Thatcher was unapologetic about expressing the theological basis for the principles of her policies: “An individualistic interpretation of the Bible, a nod to the spiritual dangers of avarice, praise of the Protestant work ethic, virtues of thrift and self-reliance, and finally, a divine justification for individual liberty and the free market.” Indeed, she often positioned herself as a Christian first and then a politician.
One can hardly be in doubt of Thatcher’s championing of the strongest possible Anglo-American alliance. Certainly a factor were the core principles and ideologies she shared with Reagan. Their friendship and its value to the globe were best expressed when she noted: “Fate decided that Ronnie should be in charge of the great United States when I was in charge politically in Britain. … We had almost identical beliefs. From very different backgrounds, very different circumstances, we had come to this passionate belief that the world is not created by governments, it is created by the creativity of man. The task of government is to create a framework in which the talents of man can flourish.”
Other than Winston Churchill, few British premiers have held Thatcher’s name recognition in the United States, where she is as much admired for being a groundbreaking, strong female leader as for her free market, anti-socialist credos. As the BBC reports, “She unleashed the free market, beat the unions and went to war with the bad guys.” That’s hard to top.
Who could argue that the type of relationship Britain and America enjoyed during the Reagan-Thatcher years — and continues to enjoy, albeit with occasional hiccups — is not optimal for the world? When America and her staunchest ally lead together and confidently, conditions are safer, more prosperous and more peaceful for all responsible nations, and more precarious for lawless and bullying nations. Thatcher knew this instinctively.
Lee Cohen is a senior fellow in Western European Affairs at the London Center for Policy Research, and the New York director of The Anglosphere Society. He formerly was director of the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.