U.S. loses trustworthy ally as British leader departs

November 23, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Gilbert Lewthwaite is the chief of The Sun's London bureau.

For more than a decade, Margaret Thatcher set Britain's agenda and decided its priorities. As she departs, she leaves a society more affluent but more divided, modernized but agonized over the weakening of traditional values, again influential in the world but still insecure at home.

She paid the price of trying to do too much and staying too long, of losing touch with the voters at home and never quite gaining it with her neighbors in Europe.

But her achievements have ensured her a place in history as one of the great British prime ministers of the 20th century.

Her political passing will be especially mourned in Washington. Throughout the Reagan years and into the Bush administration, she established herself as the United States' closest and most reliable European ally. This was rewarded when the Reagan administration, at risk to its own interests in Latin America, helped her defeat Argentina in the Falklands war in 1982.

The Thatcher-Reagan relationship can be compared only with the Churchill-Eisenhower and Macmillan-Kennedy friendships in its closeness.

There was not the same rapport with George Bush, but there was an equal commitment to the "special relationship," as is currently demonstrated by British support for the enterprise in the Persian Gulf.

In her 11 1/2 years at No. 10 Downing St., Mrs. Thatcher has changed the face of the nation, the nature of the Conservative Party and the character of British socialism.

This has been a monumental achievement by the grocer's daughter, who grew up in a family atmosphere of individual effort, public decency, moral strength and self-reliance: the qualities her father imbued in the schoolgirl known to her classmates as "snobby."

They were to become the bedrock of Thatcherism, a creed that has at its heart a belief that individuals are better suited than governments to order their own lives, to provide for their dependents and to fire the engines of industry and commerce.

This was a departure from previous Conservative philosophy, which held that leaders and the led were born into their respective estates, that the status quo was akin to the natural order. Mrs. Thatcher was not a traditional Tory at all. She was a radical. To her, change took priority over preservation.

When she came into office in 1979, Britain had just been the through its bitter "winter of discontent," which marked the depths of its post-colonial malaise.

Mrs. Thatcher, who had been leader of the Conservatives since 1975, was elected on an unprecedented wave of public discontent.

She immediately set about taming the unions, which had all but brought the country to a standstill. She introduced legislation to limit their power to strike, threaten their resources and break their monopoly on control of workplaces. The result was a decline in the labor movement's membership, its riches and power.

Her next priority was the economy. Here her record is mixed. Inflation is now back at an annual rate of 10.9 percent, production is falling, and unemployment is rising. Britain is in recession, and it is now routinely asked whether the Thatcher "miracle" was a mirage.

If the economic statistics are against Mrs. Thatcher, other factors are not. Her stewardship has transformed the British economy from an outdated industrial machine into a honed-down high-tech model. Management is leaner and meaner. Workers are more compliant. The so-called "British disease" of the 1970s -- incessant strikes, late deliveries and overpriced products -- has been considerably alleviated if not cured.

She has been criticized for destroying Britain's industrial base and relying too much on the service side of the economy and investing too heavily in Britain's future as an international financial center, skewing development from the north to the already prosperous south.

There is much talk of a nation divided between the "have-nots" in the north and the "haves" in the south. Certainly, for Mrs. Thatcher there were few votes to be had in the industrial constituencies of the north and almost none at all in Scotland.

Her popularity was hardly helped anywhere by the introduction of a poll tax, or head tax, to replace the old property tax. This imposed the same flat charge on the millionaire as the pauper, on the country gentleman as his chambermaid. It was condemned as regressive and unfair.

It was part of her undoing.

But Mrs. Thatcher also created her own constituency. She introduced "popular capitalism," selling off public enterprises, including housing, to private investors. A new class of stockholders and homeowners emerged whose self-interests naturally led them to support her rather than the socialist alternative.

A parallel development of the new prosperity-for-some and the lustily encouraged pursuit of personal wealth was the growth in violence and crime. Mrs. Thatcher attributed this to the breakdown of the nuclear family -- a social phenomenon, she pointed out, that was not unique to Britain.

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