Historian: Lady Thatcher Was the Most Influential Ruler Since Catherine the Great of Russia

Daniel Doherty
Posted: Apr 09, 2013 10:30 PM

There’s been a great deal written about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher since her death at age 87 earlier this week (Guy and Carol offered their thoughts, respectively, here and here), but I wanted to direct your attention to a rather lengthy piece written by historian Paul Johnson that was published in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.

The first paragraph alone, I think, captures the extraordinary life of an extraordinary leader in a way that really drives home her legacy:

Margaret Thatcher had more impact on the world than any woman ruler since Catherine the Great of Russia. Not only did she turn around—decisively—the British economy in the 1980s, she also saw her methods copied in more than 50 countries. "Thatcherism" was the most popular and successful way of running a country in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st.

That’s pretty impressive. How else could the “Iron Lady” possibly hope to be remembered? And to think she accomplished all this -- and more -- at a time when the very thought of a woman leading Great Britain in the twentieth century, let alone profoundly impacting and shaping world events, was universally rejected is remarkable. Case in point:

Among Tory backbenchers there was a growing feeling that Heath must go. Thatcher was one of his critics, and she encouraged the leader of her wing of the party, Keith Joseph, to stand against him. However, at the last moment Joseph's nerve failed him and he refused to run. It was in these circumstances that Thatcher, who had never seen herself as a leader, let alone prime minister, put herself forward. As a matter of courtesy, she went to Heath's office to tell him that she was putting up for his job. He did not even look up from his desk, where he was writing, merely saying: "You'll lose, you know"—a characteristic combination of bad manners and bad judgment. In fact she won handsomely, thereby beginning one of the great romantic adventures of modern British politics.

The date was 1975, and four more terrible years were to pass before Thatcher had the opportunity to achieve power and come to Britain's rescue. In the end, it was the unions themselves who put her into office by smashing up the James Callaghan Labour government in the winter of 1978-79—the so-called Winter of Discontent—enabling the Tories to win the election the following May with a comfortable majority

Of course, as Mona Charen points out, "the least interesting fact" about Lady Thatcher is that she was, after all, a woman. But that was irrelevant. And perhaps that’s the very reason why -- 22 years after she retired from public life -- she’s still so reviled by the Left.

But in the end, her achievements don’t need to be embellished or romanticized; her legacy speaks for itself. What’s more, she rose to power not because of her family connections or nepotism (indeed, she did not grow up well-connected or wealthy) but through hard work and grim determination. In other words, there’s a reason why she has inspired so many young people (not just women) both in America and Great Britain to get involved in politics and fight for conservative principles. And I suspect, as long as freedom and liberty are under assault, she will continue to do so for generations to come.