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O’Sullivan in Lisbon

Thoughtful Response to Thatcher’s Critics

Participants in the Margaret Thatcher dinner 23 September 2021. Photo: Robert Tyler.

Thatcher’s critics say that she was wrong, or lucky, or irrelevant. But they are wrong...

It is probably only a matter of time when the Left’s cancel clamour will reach Margaret Thatcher, or perhaps it already has. But her long-time speechwriter, adviser and personal friend, John O’Sullivan, gave an eloquent, thoughtful and convincing account of her accomplishments and historical role at the annual Margaret Thatcher dinner, held 23 September this year in Lisbon by the Brussels think tank New Direction that Thatcher founded in 2009. It was a pleasure to be present.

O’Sullivan reminded the audience of the dire situation in which the United Kingdom found herself in 1979 when Thatcher came to power. The economy was stagnant, and the British seemed to have lost faith in themselves. Theirs was a country in decline, the sick man of Europe. Then Thatcherism arrived, a combination of sound economics and patriotism, supporting at the same time a strong but limited state and a competitive market offering encouragement to hard work, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Thatcher not only revived the economy, but also put the Great back into Britain, defeating two ugly enemies, the military dictatorship in Argentina and the militant Marxist leadership of miners in England and Wales. Her enemies were not however the hapless Argentine soldiers or the ordinary miners many of whom were opposed to the illegal militant actions organised by the Marxists (and partly financed by Russia).  

O’Sullivan identified and responded to three groups of Thatcher’s critics. The first one simply held that her policies had failed in that they had not reached their stated economic goals. I have myself dealt with that criticism elsewhere and showed that it is misconceived. Thatcher laid the foundation for a long period of economic growth which revived the British economy. She broke the spell of the Neo-Luddites who were trying to hinder labour-saving innovations and of the Neo-Keynesians that thought problems could be solved by throwing money at them.

The second group, O’Sullivan said, had in the 1970s and 1980s dismissed Thatcher as ‘vulgar’ and ‘lower middle class’, but are now saying that she was just a typical Tory politician who happened to be around when great changes were taking place in the world economy. She was just riding the wave, so to speak. But they were wrong then, and they are wrong now. Thatcher was certainly not a typical High Tory. She was a conviction politician who had to earn each and every of her many victories. It was not at all a foregone conclusion that Great Britain would, in conjunction with Reagan’s America, lead the Free World to defeat communism and greatly extend economic freedom.

The third group of critics, according to O’Sullivan, were sentimental Tories who recognise Thatcher’s courage and determination but who assert that a less divisive leader might have achieved just the same results, without all the turmoil taking place in Thatcher’s disunited kingdom. She was magnificent, but was she really necessary? O’Sullivan rejects this criticism as well as the other two. When Thatcher came to power, the United Kingdom was in the midst of a grave crisis. Privileges and restrictive practices had to be abolished, unpopular measures had to be taken, constraint had to be maintained. It is sheer self-deception, O’Sullivan says, to think that this could have been done effortlessly.

O’Sullivan concludes: ‘So none of the three main criticisms of the Thatcher economic legacy that I have singled out – namely, that she failed; that she did not really matter; that she could have won with much less Sturm und Drang – hold water.’ But he adds that perhaps Thatcher’s greatest significance was that she not only supported ‘vigorous virtues’ like hard work, thriftiness, prudence, diligence, sobriety and self-control, but that she herself incarnated them. As the methodist preacher John Wesley, a Thatcher favourite, once said: ‘Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.’

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