If it's true, as Marc Antony observed over the bier of Julius Caesar that "the good that men do is oft interred with their bones," Margaret Thatcher is an exception proving the rule. Maggie, at 82, is still very much with us, and the bones of her legacy are still up and dancing around with the vigor and grace of a prima ballerina.
The other day, the London Daily Telegraph commissioned a poll to ask who Britons regard as their greatest post-World War II prime minister. Maggie blew everyone away, even Winston Churchill (with the crucial footnote that Sir Winston of the war years was excluded from consideration). If Maggie in her salad days stood for election today, the poll found, she would sweep in with another landslide. Thirty-four percent of those polled said Lady Thatcher was the best of the post-war gaggle, while Sir Winston trailed with 15 percent, and Tony Blair (11 percent), Harold Wilson (9 percent) and Clement Attlee (7 percent) lagged so far behind as to be irrelevant to the exercise.
The findings are no doubt due in part to the historical amnesia that afflicts our age; Winston Churchill is as distant to most voters today as Henry VIII, or any of the wives he discarded to obscurity, or dispatched to the guillotine in his obsessive pursuit of an heir. But Lady Thatcher, who was dumped by the Conservatives 19 years ago, is suddenly attractive to a new generation of voters drawn to the novelty of the politics of conviction. For years after she retired to private life, her own party worked hard to distance itself from her, even as British voters worked hard to distance themselves from her eminently forgettable successors. Now leaders of both British parties are scrambling to identify with, even be photographed with, the "Iron Lady."
The appeal of the politics of conviction is felt on this side of the Atlantic, too. Perhaps it explains the adulatory popularity of Barack Obama with young voters who have not bothered to inquire into Sen. Obama's convictions, yet to be fully revealed. The "change" his followers seek is a change from the politics designed by marketing men, with their endless array of focus groups, consultants and other diversions from conviction, principle and vision. Our politics, like those of the mother country, have descended headlong into the banal, becalmed and lying deep in the shallows. A lot of voters yearn for more than this.
Tony Blair's recent "landmark" speech about religion and politics illustrates how terrified public men and women on both sides of the sea have become of saying or appearing to believing anything substantive. Mr. Blair said he couldn't "do God," in the famous words of a press aide, even to utter a simple "God bless you" while he was the prime minister because it might be "considered weird." In the modern culture, he said, "It would have led to a whole series of suppositions, none of which are very helpful to the practicing politician." (Sound familiar?) This could have been taken from the playbook of Democratic politicians here. But upon discovering how wrong they were not to "do God," both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have resorted to everything short of tent revivals to undo the damage.
Lady Thatcher (a Methodist) has never worn her religion on her sleeve (and no manly pantsuits for her, either), but she never worried about appearing "weird" or running athwart political orthodoxy -- political correctness, as we call it now.
Philip Johnston, writing in the Daily Telegraph, recalls attending a summit meeting of British Commonwealth leaders years ago to discuss imposing sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. Lady Thatcher, who was working behind the scenes to pressure the government to dismantle apartheid and free Nelson Mandela as a token of good faith, was alone among the 49 assembled heads of state to oppose sanctions. She said sanctions would only make the lives of ordinary South Africans -- particularly black South Africans -- more miserable. At the concluding press conference, a reporter (likely a television correspondent) asked the inevitable question of what it "felt like" to be the only leader to oppose the sanctions that all right-thinking folks approved. She replied simply: "I feel sorry for the 48."
No one under the age of 40 can appreciate how miserable Britain was in the late 1970s, with the trade unions strangling the economy and despair as the overall mood of the nation. The only thing left and right agreed on was things were getting worse. Maggie Thatcher prescribed medicine that had been long dismissed as poison: privatizing state industry, deregulation and encouraging an enterprise culture.
"They" said it was beyond the ability of any man to do anything about the misery. So a woman did it. But, not just any woman.