Select Page

Margaret ThatcherThis month’s Imprimis features a speech by John O’Sullivan, executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and one-time special advisor to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

O’Sullivan’s speech provides a valuable lesson in the history of Thatcher’s leadership and the power of privatized industry in building an entrepreneurial society, and how this can stimulate a stagnated socialist economy.

May we never reach the depth that Britain did.

O’Sullivan’s speech was given at the dedication of the first statue of Margaret Thatcher to be placed in the United States, which was at Hillsdale College (the home of Imprimis).

He covers a great deal regarding the Cold War, and Thatcher’s role working with Reagan, Helmut Schmidt, and others to build a stronger missile presence in Western Europe, and the repelling of the Argentinians from the Falkland Islands, both of which conveyed dramatically Britain’s willingness and ability to fight.

Most importantly, however, is his treatment of the impact of both Thatcher and Reagan’s social/economic policies that build not only a successful growth in both countries, but provided a model for others to follow:

All these changes were a revival of what Shirley Robin Letwin, the distinguished Anglo-American political theorist, called the “vigorous virtues” in her important study of Thatcherism. These are such qualities as self-reliance, diligence, thrift, trustworthiness, and initiative that enable someone who exhibits them to live and work independently in society. Though they are not the only virtues—compassion might be called one of the “softer virtues”—they are essential to the success of a free economy and a civil society, both of which rely on dispersed initiative and self-reliant citizens.

That transformation did not stop at the Atlantic’s edge. Thatcher (and Reagan) also changed the world economy by virtue of the demonstration effects of Reaganism and Thatcherism. They had provided the world with successful models of free and deregulated economies.

These demonstration effects were similar but not identical. Tax cuts were America’s principal intellectual export; privatization was Britain’s.

Of the two, privatization was the more important globally, since the Third World and post-communist economies were encumbered with a vast number of inefficient state industries. Privatization expertise became one of the City of London’s most profitable services over the next two decades. Even the Soviets and Western European communists were forced to change course by the widespread adoption of privatization internationally—and also by the equally widespread acceptance of the market logic behind it.

And later…

When Lady Thatcher revived the British economy, she was reviving profound social virtues that the British had once exemplified to the world—the Thatcherite “vigorous virtues” described above. In 1979, they seemed utterly destroyed by 50 years of statism and socialism. In fact, they had merely been driven underground by government over-regulation and intervention.

As James C. Bennett has observed, it took only a few years of Lady Thatcher’s application of free market solutions for these virtues to become vigorous again. Once that happened, it took only a few more years for those revived virtues to transform Britain from the sick man of Europe into the world’s fourth largest economy.

Deep social patterns can rarely be extirpated altogether. Cultural transformations of nations and societies imposed by governments nearly always fail in the long run. The old ways only look dead; in reality, they are merely dormant. They are the resources of our civilization and they can be revived to meet new challenges.

These words from O’Sullivan frame up for us a demonstrable history model that supports the value of a conservative mindset. Later in his speech he references the more obvious economic success of these policies in Estonia and Poland. Having visited Poland a few years ago, I can attest to the remarkable growth in retail and recreation industries. We stayed at a wonderful resort in the mountains of southwest Poland and while there visited a store comparable to large Target or Wal*Mart. While in a supermarket, I was struck by how similar the setting was to similar stores here in the US, but at the same time I was struck by the fact that the locals were obviously nervous around foreigners… smiling and attempts at friendly greetings were rebuffed, apparently out of distrust built up over the decades. Hopefully that will change soon as well.

I strong encourage a full read of the speech (pdf format) at the Hillsdale web site. One may also want to take a look at some of Thatcher’s writings, including “Statecraft“.

Excerpts of Sullivan’s speech are reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

    Log in