Farewell, champion of liberty
Today, the United Kingdom and the world bid farewell to a great champion of liberty, Margaret Thatcher, who did not just dominate British politics for more than a decade but achieved what is much more important. She changed Britain through her convictions and pioneered the free market economics that most of the world, including Malta, now enjoys or aspires to enjoy.
Thatcher was a towering political figure precisely because she was not a politician for politics’ sake but a leader for the sake of change and freedom. She influenced many others to make the world we live in now very different to what it would have been without her.
The political consensus in the West when she became Prime Minister of Britain in May 1979 was one of accommodation with a growing Soviet threat. Left-wing politicians thought communism successful, even inspiring, and were abetted in this by defeatist centrists and right wingers.
And the economic consensus was then definitely socialist: the government had to run the economy; the government knew best. That consensus had resulted in Britain becoming ‘the sick man of Europe’ with large swathes of industry owned by the State but run by trade unions and subsidised heavily by taxpayers, suffering high inflation, huge underemployment and low productivity.
Thatcher knew she could not bring change through consensus but through conviction. She had to democratically, yet vigorously, explain why her programme was right and fight her way to privatise State-owned industries and houses, liberalise the economy, reduce public expenditure, remove subsidies, democratise unions and industrial action, and reduce taxes on income.
That was a tall order and proved to be very divisive. But, despite that divisiveness, three consecutive election victories cemented the new atmosphere of liberty many live today not just in Britain but in many other countries: free markets, low income taxes, consumer choice and a spirit of enterprise.
Even Malta, after 1987, could not but be influenced by her economic policies.
Free markets are but a synonym of political freedom. In one of her early speeches as Prime Minister, Thatcher laid out her political philosophy: “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master; they’re the essence of a free economy and on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.”
Not for Thatcher the West’s weakness and the relaxed attitude towards the Soviet Union and its ideology. Britain had to be strong, therefore, the successful retaking of the Falklands. And the West had to negotiate from a position of strength, thus, her excellent relationship with her political soulmate Ronald Reagan and the acceptance of American cruise and pershing missiles.
But this did not mean isolation. Thatcher famously described Mikhail Gorbachev as a “man we can do business with” and courted public opinion in Communist Poland. Still Prime Minister in 1989, she saw socialism being buried in the rubble when the Berlin Wall fell, symbolising the implosion of the Soviet empire and its ideology.
In Malta, as late as 1987, we were still being fed myths about the superiority of communist satellites like North Korea and Romania. But Thatcher pioneered a new belief in the free Western way of life, which the peoples of Eastern Europe and of ex-Soviet satellites now share and enjoy.
Should we expect forceful and long-serving political figures like Thatcher to be perfect? Of course, not. Her electoral success, economic results and the fall of communism might have engendered in her an air of invincibility, which she showed in her campaign for a fundamentally unfair poll tax and her opposition to an ever closer union among European nations.
Thatcher had firmly campaigned for Europe as a free single market up to 1986. But she opposed the logical consequence of that, monetary union, and paid a heavy price with the resignation of several of her senior ministers and the challenge that finally led to her removal from office by her own party in late 1990.
Yet, for all her faults, Thatcher was a truly transformational leader. She didn’t follow; she led.
She stood up for what she believed in: that Britain could be great again, that the Western way of life had to be defended robustly, that freedom from an overbearing State has to be lived daily in economic transactions, that competition brings about better products and services.
Thatcher’s measure of success and how right she was can be seen in just one simple observation: most of today’s politicians, left wing and right, are her ideological children. This is the great change she brought about: in her political adversaries in Britain and in many left-wing parties throughout the world who accept the new orthodoxy of the limited State and the private sector as the engines of free societies. It wasn’t always so.