Only a few leaders in history transcend their terms of service and change commonly held assumptions about the world around them. Margaret Thatcher, who died this week at age 87, was one of them.
"The iron lady," as the Soviet Union aptly called her, was not famous for being Britain's first and, to date, only female prime minister. She was famous for being among its most effective, regardless of gender. She reshaped its economy with an unfailing faith in free markets, stood up to aggression abroad and became an indispensable ally to the United States in the final, decisive stages of the Cold War. She set the tone for Britain's future. Even the opposition, statist Labour Party adopted some of her principles as it took over British leadership after her tenure, and its prime minister, Tony Blair, remained an important U.S. ally during President George W. Bush's decision to launch war on Iraq.
The key to Thatcher's success was her unbending devotion to enduring principles, which held more weight with her at times than the advice of those she otherwise trusted. Those principles included much more than free markets and military strength.
At a speech at Brigham Young University in 1996, Thatcher said no country can survive without a clear dedication to moral foundations. She identified the need for traditional, loving families and the honoring of fundamental human rights as necessary ingredients for progress. This, she said — according to a Deseret News account of the speech — takes a people full of faith, with strong moral principles at work in their lives.
Thatcher said Utahns, of all people, should be unfailing in remembering these basic moral principles, "surrounded by the mountains that remind us of the majesty and glory of God."
Thatcher never forgot who had surrounded her in her formative years. Raised by parents who were devoted Methodists — her father a preacher — She rose from a background quite different from Britain's upper crust and never viewed that as anything but an asset.
It's difficult today to remember what her nation was like in 1979. When she became prime minister, Britain's flagging economy had sapped it of its strength, energy and national self-esteem. A devotee of the free-market ideas of Nobel prize winning economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, she forged ahead, selling off nationalized industries and confronting labor unions. The road was rough, especially at first as critics railed and the economy faltered. But she never publicly displayed an ounce of doubt, and ultimately she succeeded in revitalizing her country.
When Argentina seized the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982, she sprang into action. Ignoring advisers who warned her about risks, she sent the military to reclaim the islands, vaulting her to an overwhelming re-election in 1983 and cementing her reputation as a tough leader.
Thatcher not only changed her own country and inspired people around the world, she gave the English-speaking world some of its most memorable lines. "Remember George, this is no time to go wobbly," she told U.S. President George H.W. Bush when he was contemplating what to do in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. She effectively summarized the problem with state controlled economies with the line, "The trouble with socialists is that they always run out of other people's money."
She will be missed. Her death is doubly tragic in that the world today seems to have few such clear and distinct voices to carry on her leadership.