Margaret Thatcher’s Lessons for Europe

PRINCETON – Margaret Thatcher was much more respected outside Britain than she was in her own country. In the United States, but also in Central Europe, she is recognized as a hero, especially in the fight for economic and political freedom.

That vision of freedom and dynamism was never really all that popular – or understood – by the British people. In the end, Thatcher’s achievement was also distorted by her own mistakes in dealing with the complex politics of a Europe that was rapidly changing in the aftermath of the collapse of communism.

As Prime Minister, she was widely disliked in Britain, mostly for bad reasons. Throughout her political life, she fought a two-front battle: against socialism, but also against the Establishment. Sometimes the two theaters seemed to merge.

The British Establishment had adhered to a pact rooted in the experience of the Great Depression and World War II. It would accept high tax rates and enormous redistribution of resources in exchange for being permitted to retain its quirky rituals, antique hierarchies, lofty titles, and fine distinctions. The result was widespread inefficiency, an appalling record of labor unrest, low productivity, and economic stagnation.