Margaret Thatcher’s death on Monday, April 8th at the age of 87 brought a flood of reminiscences from many in the chattering classes who are old enough to remember her and her remarkable eleven-year tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Dame Margaret’s many conservative allies recalled her friendship with Ronald Reagan and her championing of the “special relationship” between Britain and the USA. Others praised her free market reforms, which reinvigorated a moribund British economy, tamed inflation, and made London a major international financial and banking center once again. Needless to say, Dame Margaret’s critics on the left refused to remain silent. From reports of unseemly celebrations at the news of her passing to liberal media outlets ponderously lecturing on the suffering that her reforms inflicted on certain favored leftwing constituencies, the liberals showed that they never forgot an old foe, especially one who so often bested them.
Through it all admirers and critics alike noted Thatcher’s “formidable” nature, her “vigorous” style, her “iron will”, and her “steely determination”. While the late Prime Minister seems to have cornered the metallurgy market in these descriptions, what appears to be missing from these post-mortem assessments is, perhaps, Mrs. Thatcher’s greatest triumph, namely her refutation of the determinist school of historical interpretation.
In order to understand the importance of this achievement we must explore a little background information. In the 1830s Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish literary historian, postulated an idea which came to be known as the “Great Man” theory of history. Carlyle, in his historical works, argued that history turned on the decisions and actions of “heroes” and he offered a sophisticated analysis of the heroic nature of such diverse figures as Muhammad, Shakespeare, Martin Luther, Frederick the Great, and especially Napoleon as illustrative of his theory. Other prominent philosophers and historians including Hegel, Jacob Burckhardt, and Henry Adams, among others, echoed Carlyle’s general idea.
The Great Man approach to history peaked in the mid-to-later 19th century, but soon came under a withering critique from those later known as “determinists”, who rejected the idea that the actions of individuals shape history and argued that a multitude of factors, most of which were cold, impersonal, and usually unknown, drive the course of events. The determinists ranged from Karl Marx to Herbert Spencer to William James to Count Leo Tolstoy. In War And Peace Tolstoy savages the Great Man theory in his epilogue, and argues that the significance of individuals (in this case Napoleon) is an illusion. People are slaves to the impersonal forces of history, doomed to simply carry out the will of Providence. In time the various determinist schools (economic, biological, scientific, environmental, racial, etc.) succeeded in marginalizing the Great Man theorists.
Now let us return to Margaret Thatcher. She was the first woman to win the Prime Ministership of the UK, and she took office at a critical moment in British history. The sun had long since set on the British Empire, and the country was quickly becoming an international laughingstock. Paul Johnson and other British literary lions have noted the disdain they encountered when discussing their English heritage during the late 1970s. Mrs. Thatcher came to power 1½ years before Ronald Reagan won election as the US President, and she immediately began to implement her governing program. During that memorable eleven years, including smashing electoral victories in 1983 and 1987, Dame Margaret revived the British economy and then she took on and defeated Arthur Scargill and the coal miners union. In foreign matters she sent the storied British navy to slap down the impertinent Argentines in 1982, she worked closely with President Reagan (and indirectly with Pope John Paul II) in efforts to undermine and sink communism in Eastern Europe, and she continued to stand with the USA through the Cold war and beyond by sending British combat units to fight in the first Gulf War of 1990-91.
In domestic British politics Mrs. Thatcher re-established the Tories as a vigorous party, more concerned with ideas and ideology than merely winning elections with bland candidates who stood for nothing. Her success actually forced her Labor opponents to jettison socialism and they selected the rather moderate Tony Blair as their leader, although this came after Mrs. Thatcher had retired and the Tories fell back into the doldrums of mediocrity, turning the party over to the leadership of the nondescript John Major.
The material point of this disquisition is the fact that Margaret Thatcher initiated all of these efforts. These triumphs were not the result of luck, or being in the right place, or of a friendly environment. None of the familiar determinist fallback positions fit the reality of Margaret Thatcher. She was a genuinely heroic figure, who defied and refuted the daft idea that no individual can control historical events. Much more than any particular policy victory, this is Dame Margaret Thatcher’s great historical legacy. Margaret Thatcher, a great friend of America, was a giant and the world will not see her like again!