Thatcher and Reagan

One of the aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s career that made her so iconic to American conservatives was her almost eery foreshadowing of Ronald Reagan’s career (sort of the reverse of the Clinton-Blair relationship). She won control of the Tory Party in 1975, just before Reagan’s near-miss effort to wrest the 1976 Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford. She won her first big general election in 1979, a year before Reagan’s breakthrough in 1980. As Charles Pierce points out today, Thatcher’s highly symbolic splendid little war in the Falklands in 1982 preceded Reagan’s “breaking the Vietnam syndrome” invasion of Grenada in 1983. Her government was re-elected by a landslide (the largest since the Labour landslide of 1945) in 1983; Reagan was re-elected by a landslide in 1984.

Reagan did, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, leave office in 1989, a year before Thatcher was forced from 10 Downing Street. But he was also fifteen years older than Thatcher (she was five years younger when her prime ministership ended than Reagan was when his presidency began), and so didn’t have her awkward post-power denouement.

From a “movement conservative” point of view, the legacy of both leaders was marred by tax heresies: Reagan’s agreement to two tax increases during his first term, and Thatcher’s ultimately fatal embrace of the “poll tax” (a local per capita levy intended to replace property taxes). Thatcher’s tax, however, can also be viewed as a precursor of the American conservative movement’s infatuation with regressive tax “reforms” like the “flat tax.”

“Neutral” historians have often viewed both leaders as having served as a “corrective” to the “excesses” of liberalism (or in Thatcher’s case, democratic socialism) whose policies eventually wore out their welcome; while Reagan’s approval ratings were generally good during his second term, his party lost control of Congress in 1986 in a notably bad performance. For poor and middle-class folk who experienced both regimes, however, life could be difficult at the “best of times,” and both Thatcher and Reagan aroused a degree of bitter opposition that has been blurred by time. But not at YouTube. As suggested by commenter smartalek earlier today, here’s the ska band English Beat–or to use their UK name, The Beat–performing “Stand Down Margaret” in 1982.

UPDATE: Commenter Gandalf is furious about my brief description (before knocking it down) of a common belief that Thatcher and Reagan were useful if temporary “correctives” to Left excesses. I don’t know if Gandalf (a) doubts a lot of the usual suspects think this, (b) thinks, despite my follow-on, that I agree with it, or (c) just doesn’t like references to CW that don’t have specific links. Maybe I should not have used the term “historians,” but there is zero doubt in my mind that this treatment of Reagan and Thatcher is extraordinarily common in the large group of people who think of politics as an endless oscillation between Left and Right tending towards “the center,” whatever that is at any given moment. It’s not that far, BTW, from what Barack Obama famously said about Reagan back in 2008. So I think this anger at me is a bit misplaced, unless it’s about the failure to supply links, and on that point, taking the time to find linkable general-purpose histories of Anglo-American politics to document a POV that I’ve heard for decades would really cut into the blogging day.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.