Published Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:13 pm
Jonah Goldberg: ‘Iron Lady’ proved doubters wrong

In 1975, when asked to explain why Margaret Thatcher was poised to take over the Tory Party, the irascible British satirist Malcolm Muggeridge replied that it was all due to television — and the fact that the telegenic Thatcher had a “certain imbecile charm.”

That was one of the nicer things said about an “imbecile” who earned a degree in chemistry from Oxford and became a lawyer while studying at home. (She sent her bar application to the maternity ward while recovering from delivering twins.)

One lesson here is that being underestimated is a great gift in politics. Ronald Reagan was dubbed an “amiable dunce” before he was known as the “Teflon president,” and Thatcher had imbecile charm before she was dubbed — by the Soviets — the “Iron Lady.”

When the news of Thatcher’s death broke Monday, I went back to the archives of National Review to look at what William F. Buckley (my former boss) had to say about her when she was a fresh face. Dismissing the skeptics, Buckley was impressed by her personal story, given that she hailed from a “party that has tended, when looking for a leader, to thumb through lists of unemployed Etonians.” He concluded, “It is my guess she bears watching. Put me down as a fan.”

Just over four years later, Buckley penned a column with the headline: “Margaret Is My Darling.” The day before the elections, he had wired her (for you kids, that means he sent her a telegram. It’s like a paper text message. Google it): “I AND WHAT’S LEFT OF THE FREE WORLD ARE ROOTING FOR YOU, LOVE.”

Buckley rightly identified the importance of Thatcher’s victory. “For over a generation we have been assaulted — castrated is probably closer to the right word — by the notion that socialism is the wave of the future.”

The arguments between the major parties in the West had almost invariably been disagreements over the pace of descent into one or another flavor of statism. It “has always been possible for the leftward party to say about the rightward party that its platform is roughly identical to the platform of the leftward party one or two elections back.”

This was certainly true in the United States, though Buckley may have overstated things when he wrote that, “Roosevelt would have considered the Republican Party platform of Richard Nixon as radical beyond the dreams of his brain-trusters.”

What’s indisputable, however, is that the Tories and the Republicans alike suffered from an excess of “me-tooism.” From Thomas Dewey through Gerald Ford — minus Barry Goldwater’s staggering (and staggeringly influential) defeat — Republicans put forward leaders who promised to do what liberals were doing but in a more responsible way. The pattern was even worse in Britain, which had thrown out Winston Churchill, at least partly, for wanting to trim back the welfare state.

For decades, conservatism failed to offer an alternative. This was why economist Friedrich Hayek said he couldn’t call himself a conservative. It has, he wrote, “invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.”

One reason for this tendency is that in democracies, politicians usually can’t withstand the short-term backlash that comes with meaningful long-term free-market reforms. Thatcher was expected to follow the pattern. When it became clear that Thatcher intended to actually practice what she’d been preaching, the press demanded she make a “U-turn.” She didn’t. She explained in a defining speech in 1980, “The lady’s not for turning.” She had promised voters, to borrow a phrase from Barry Goldwater, “a choice, not an echo.” She delivered on it, and Britain is immeasurably better for it.

It’s worth remembering that Thatcher did not destroy the British equivalent of what Americans call liberalism. She destroyed socialism, which was a thriving concern — at least intellectually — in Britain.

When Labor decided to get serious about winning elections again, Tony Blair had to repudiate the party’s century-long support for doctrinaire socialism and embrace the market. Soon, Bill Clinton followed suit, bending his party to Reagan’s legacy. Suddenly, liberals were playing the “me-too” game.

That’s one reason the left still hates her and Reagan so much. Thatcher and Reagan didn’t just force change on their societies, they forced change on their enemies, proving that the wave of the future is not so inevitable after all.

Contact the writer: JonahsColumn@aol.com

Primary battle between Battiato, Morrissey may be only race
UNMC appoints new dean for the college of dentistry
Jeff Corwin hopes to build connection with nature at Nebraska Science Festival
Metro transit recommends streetcar, rapid-transit bus line for Omaha
6-mile stretch of Highway 75 is the road not taken
After decades looking in, Republican Dan Frei seeks chance to take action
Cause of Omaha power outage along Regency Parkway unclear
Ben Sasse, Shane Osborn try to pin label of D.C. insider on each other
Curious about government salaries? Look no further
Easter Sunday temperatures climb into 80s in Omaha area
Omaha police investigate two nonfatal shootings
City Council to vote on adding Bluffs pedestrian safety lights
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Midlands runners ready for Boston Marathon
Families from area shelters treated to meal at Old Chicago
Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Meridian Med Spa
50% Off Botox®, Botox® Bridal Party, Fillers and Peels
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »