Forty years ago, on May 4th, 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. She has been demonized by the Left precisely because she was so successful. She turned Britain away from state ownership and controls, toward free enterprise and market competition and proved their worth by the success they brought about. A remarkable string of achievements left her country more prosperous, more confident, and a major player on the world stage. She was rated amongst the most influential figures of her century.
1. She was a woman with a science degree, and rose to become Europe’s first female head of government. She inspired women to think they could aspire to succeed in what had been the male-dominated world of public service.
2. She had shown her steel in the 1980 Iran Embassy siege, when she had sent in the SAS to rescue hostages after the terrorists had killed one of them. That same resolution showed in the 1982 Falklands War, when Argentina invaded islands they had never owned, and which were uninhabited when British settlers arrived. She sent a task force and recovered the islands.
3. Her 1980 Right to Buy Scheme allowed those living in council (social) housing to buy their homes at greatly discounted prices and become home owners. Over a million people did so.
4. Inflation, which had peaked at 26 percent in the 1970s was brought under control as her Chancellors increased interest rates and indirect taxes to slow the growth of the money supply.
5. She reformed the too-powerful trade unions by making secondary industrial action illegal, instituting secret postal ballots for union leadership, requiring unions to ballot their members before strike action, and by abolishing the closed shop. She defeated the Miners’ strike of 1984-85.
6. She privatized most of the state industries, turning them into profitable and successful private firms, and popularized share ownership by ordinary people as well as professional investors. She introduced competition into them, helping to lower prices.
7. She reduced barriers to entrepreneurship, lowering regulations and creating enterprise zones and freeports. In a single day in 1986, the City of London was deregulated in a ‘Big Bang,’ ending centuries of the old boy network and turning the UK financial sector into a world beater.
8. In the Kenneth Baker education reforms she transformed schooling by giving parents a choice of school, and by allowing state funding to follow the child to successful schools. This changed top down direction into bottom up control directed by parents.
9. She brought foreign investment flooding into Britain by repealing exchange controls and by lowering taxes on businesses and incomes.
10. By taking a firm stand against Soviet aggression and expansionism, and supporting President Reagan by deploying US missiles to counter Soviet missile deployment, she was instrumental in bringing the Cold War to its end in victory for the West and freedom for those who had suffered under Communist dictatorships.
It is difficult to convey to those not there the mood of Britain in the 1970s. There was a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Things seemed shoddy and second rate compared with what we saw abroad. Public services were deplorable, and transport pathetic. Goods and services were renowned for their low quality and late delivery. The helplessness derived from a general belief that things could only get worse, and that nothing could be done about it.
Margaret Thatcher applied vision and determination, and Britain’s recovery was as fast as it was dramatic. It took only a few years to restore confidence and optimism. What had seemed impossible actually happened. Fortune magazine and Newsweek both ran cover stories on the theme “Britain is Back!” And it all started 40 years ago. May the 4th be with her, always.