In the quaint traditions of British aristocracy, anyone who has served as prime minister is entitled to become an earl and sit in the House of Lords, passing this august title on to future generations, however undeserving.
Margaret Thatcher, who broke so many other traditions during her remarkable 11 1/2 years at the top of Her Majesty's government, has not yet declared whether she would like to become the female equivalent of an earl - a countess - but for lovers of freedom everywhere, this iron-willed grocer's daughter already counts more than any prince or duke on the planet.And so, as the British move forward under new leadership, it seems important for Americans and others to take a moment to look beyond the purely political questions that have dominated the headlines - Was she insufficiently enthusiastic about joining Europe? Did she simply not know (as great politicians so rarely do) when it was time to call it quits? - to consider her abiding impact on the economic life of our countries as well as her own.
So resilient is the British economy today, even in apparent recession, that few realize how far she has moved it since taking office in 1979 - or how greatly her own success inspired subsequent positive changes in the United States and elsewhere.
Before Ronald Reagan, before Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13, before "supply-side economics," pioneering voices like Thatcher's were working eloquently to bring capitalism back into style on both sides of the Atlantic (and eventually, because of their success, on both sides of the Iron Curtain).
When I talked with Thatcher a few months before she became prime minister, I recalled my own six years as a foreign correspondent in London and reminded her that it was common, in Britain as in America, for politicians to denounce big government while out of office but then to expand it, or at least maintain it, once elected. (President Bush, are you listening?)
The woman who was about to become Britain's first woman prime minister - and its longest-serving head of government in more than a century and a half - instantly acknowledged that such waffling had been the norm in the past. But she, she insisted, would be the exception.
On taking office, she said, she would move immediately to reduce taxes, restore incentives, curb explosive monetary growth and truly target inflation as "Public Enemy Number One." Her specific policies, she declared emphatically, would be unapologetically pro-capitalist - or, as she put it, "policies based on individual freedom."
Compare such straight talk - which she promptly proceeded to implement - with the mealy-mouthed, wet-finger-in-the-wind approach of most American politicians. And such talk, remember, was even more unusual in a country whose government routinely consumed more than half its total production, where the minimum tax rate was 35 percent and the maximum soared to 83 percent on "earned" income and 98 percent on savings.
The results of the Thatcher turnabout have been astounding. The current top tax rate of 40 percent not only has dramatically strengthened the private economy and stopped the "brain drain" that sent the nation's ablest citizens abroad. The burden is actually now lower, in many cases, than the tax bill on comparable Americans, who must pay significant state and local taxes. "High tax Britain" is increasingly a thing of the past, as is the "inevitable" drift toward ever greater public spending.
Americans distracted from their own future economic growth by class-war rhetoric about "fairness" and "redistribution" might well pause to look at the historic results of this amazing woman's 11 1/2-year miracle, in which she reversed two generations of national decline, courageously stood down socialists in her own ranks, as well as the opposition, and gave hope, prosperity and an economic future to a nation that had long seemed in danger of losing all three.
Britain, which had drifted far further down the road to totalitarianism before she came along, will happily never be the same. If Margaret Thatcher really doesn't want to be a silly old countess, do you think we could lure her over here and get her to teach plain talk about freedom to some of our own anemic "leaders"? It could be the best Lend-Lease arrangement since World War II.