One hundred years before Lady Margaret Thatcher’s
Conservative Party won its House of Commons majority, elevating her into the
office of Prime Minister, one of her predecessors defined freedom. “By a free country I mean a country where
people are allowed, so long as they do not hurt their neighbours, to do as they
like. I do not mean a country where six men may make five men do exactly as
they like. That is not my notion of freedom.”
In describing freedom as the result of enjoyed rights, rather than
simple majority rule, Lord Salisbury argued for a conservative tradition of
liberty in Britain dating back to the high middle ages.
In taking up that same cause as Prime Minister in
1979, Lady Thatcher did nothing new, nothing radical. She was taking her country back to its best
Great Britain shocked the world in the spring of
1945. After the defeat of the Third
Reich and before the vanquishing of the Empire of Japan, Britain’s Conservative
Party lost its majority in the House of Commons. Winston Churchill’s first go-round as Prime
Minister ended. With it went his goals
of rebuilding British power and retaining control of their Empire. But the biggest loser in that election was the
notion of economic liberty.
Britain steadily constructed a welfare state and an
economy held hostage by powerful labor unions.
The speed at which socialism set in disturbed economists, such as F. A.
Hayek, who cautioned that state economic planning leads to tyranny. Britain itself saw gradual economic decline,
slipping far behind the United States as an industrial power.
Lady Thatcher had to attack the privileged position
of interest groups. Much like her
American counterpart and close friend, Ronald Reagan, she struck at the power
of unions to destabilize British society.
The closed shop was outlawed, as were “flying pickets” that shut off
access between factories and public highways.
To battle runaway inflation, she constricted the
money supply while deeply cutting government spending. Like in the United States, the shock of a new
direction produced short term pain, but lengthy prosperity benefitting
While echoing Lord Salisbury’s ideas on freedom, she
departed sharply from his description of the ideal foreign policy. Lady Thatcher could not be content to let her
Britain “float lazily downstream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic
boat-hook to avoid collisions.” Britain
in the 1980s confronted a vastly different world, with greater threats to freedom everywhere, than when she controlled much
of the land and sea.
Lady Thatcher formed part of a highly exclusive
club, joined by Pope John Paul the Great and President Reagan. This triumvirate rejected the "wisdom" of
leaders who came before, that liberty loving peoples had to accept the
existence of Soviet tyranny and abuse of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Patience, pressure, and persistence paid
great dividends when, in the early 1990s, Communist rule from Moscow
disintegrated. Hundreds of millions in Europe and Asia enjoyed freedom for the first time in their lives.
Her warnings about a too strongly integrated European Union have proved almost prophetic. The fragile currency union threatens almost monthly to snap, with potentially serious consequences for Europe and the world.
Unfortunately, like an invasive species in a
neglected garden, some problems return.
Unions started to roll back important free market reforms almost a
decade ago. Argentina’s thirst for
revenge and hunger for oil have led to renewed truculence over the Falklands. “By much slothfulness the building decayeth.” Again, as in the United States, freedom’s
ramparts need careful and repeated attention.
Lord Salisbury ministered to a Britain at the height
of its power and productivity. Lady
Thatcher led Britain out of its lowest nadir in centuries to restored
prosperity and hope. Between the two of
them, and stretching back centuries, were the basic conservative principles of the
natural rights of the individual and economic liberty. Only with such pillars can a happy and free
people remain so.