The 1990 Tory coup against Margaret Thatcher was the most intense political event I’ve covered. The Conservative politicians who were trying to remove her from party leadership and the prime minister’s office knew they were toppling a person who was their political and moral superior. They knew she had earned the right to face the country in an election one last time, rather than be deposed by the supposed lieutenants in her own party. They sensed there would be some Shakespearean retribution for the act of disloyalty they were engaged in. They went around rubbing their hands like Lady Macbeth trying to expunge the sin even as they were committing it.
But Thatcher had exhausted the country. She had run through all the potential ministers on her side, and blocked the ambitions of many others. Her colleagues thought she was too anti-Europe. Her poll numbers were sinking. And so they felt compelled to act. After a series of fervid meetings and maneuvers while she was away, the members of her own party brought her down.
She came back from Paris betrayed and red around the eyes. But she still had to lead a Question Time in the House of Commons, speaking for a government she no longer headed.
It was a triumph. She dominated the hall, crushed the hecklers and rose magnificently above her own misery. “I’m enjoying this,” she exulted at one point. “I’m enjoying this!” The men who destroyed her leapt to their feet and roared. “You can wipe the floor with those people!” one of her remaining supporters shouted.
Thatcher went down in full cry: “When good has to be upheld, when evil has to be overcome, Britain will take up arms!”
A little while later I literally bumped into her at a conference. I asked her what was running through her mind as she entered the House of Commons for that triumphant session. I’ve rarely received an answer so disappointing. She told me she was thinking of the thank-you notes she would have to write that evening, and other mundane details of the day.
The people who make history are usually not the same people who are able to reflect and be introspective about it. As her former aide Matthew Parris once wrote, “I don’t actually believe she had hidden depths.”
Margaret Thatcher was a world historical figure for the obvious reasons. Before Thatcher, history seemed to be moving in the direction of Swedish social democracy. After Thatcher, it wasn’t. But her most pervasive influence was on the level of values.
She was formed by her disgust with 1970s Britain. She witnessed a moral shift in those years, away from people who were competitive and toward people who were cooperative, away from the ambitious and toward those who were self-nurturing and self-exploring, away from the culture of rectitude and toward the culture of narcissism. Especially in the prestigious reaches of society, people were often uninterested in technology and disdainful of commerce.
In the political sphere this translated into an aversion to conflict, a desperate desire for consensus, which often translated into policy drift and a gradual surrender to entrenched interests. Thatcher saw this as a loss of national potency. She saw it as a loss of will, a settling for mediocrity, a betrayal of Britain’s great history and an acceptance of decline.
The daughter of a small grocer, she led a fervent bourgeois Risorgimento. She was the voice of the ambitious middle class. She lionized the self-made striver. Loving tidiness, she checked to see if the space above the picture frames was properly dusted.
She championed a certain sort of individual, one who possessed what the writer Shirley Robin Letwin called the Vigorous Virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”
If her predecessors stood for consensus and the endless negotiation of interests over beer and sandwiches, Thatcher stood for steadfast conviction on behalf of the national good. An admirer of the free market, her companion goal was to restore the authority of the state, and she was willing to centralize power to do it.
At a time when others were sliding toward moral relativism, Thatcher stood for individual responsibility, moral self-confidence and often, it has to be admitted, self-righteous certitude.
Put aside her personal failings, she was a militant optimist for a country slipping unconsciously toward defeatism. Beyond her policy decisions, she was part of a values shift.
Today, bourgeois virtues like industry, competitiveness, ambition and personal responsibility are once again widely admired, by people of all political stripes. Today, technology is central to our world and tech moguls are celebrated.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton embraced and ratified her policy shifts. Millions more have been influenced by her idea of what makes an admirable individual.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.
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