Ambrose: U.S. could stand to take a few lessons from Thatcher




Margaret Thatcher saved Great Britain not the way Winston Churchill did earlier, through wartime leadership, but domestically, through reform.

To be sure, she did help end the Cold War and played it tough in the Falklands, but what this longest serving of all of Britain’s prime ministers chiefly did was fight back against a socialist reign of ruin, ultimately helping change an economy in tatters to one thumping its chest among international competitors. We need comparable guidance in America right now.

It’s fascinating how it sometimes happens that, at some particularly perilous moment in a nation’s history, a giant will arise and do what has to be done. We’ve had them in this country, and we need one again in the next presidential election. In sifting out what to look for, look at how Thatcher stood up against mighty social and political forces that emerged with special vigor at the end of World War II.

History, some might say, was not on her side, and yet, in the 1980s, she successfully took on the nationalization of vast swaths of industry; stultifying, stubborn, strike-zany trade union power; the freebie state, and all the cheerleaders for these nostrums that seem to some such a sure and noble way out of difficulty. Freedom was the answer, and the Iron Lady knew it. While few political victories are final — and some of her achievements have suffered setbacks — this grocer’s daughter gave incredibly shrinking Britain a chance to recover through her fortitude; articulately voiced, consistent, conservative philosophy; political savvy, and unceasing determination.

There are big differences and yet also striking similarities between England in the years Thatcher was prime minister and the collectivist-minded, big-government, Washington-knows-best nation in which we live today. We’re not in the shape Britain was in, but we are in danger down the road of a crippling collapse. Essentially unaddressed debt threatens calamity, Obamacare will soon be beating up badly on businesses and overregulation rebukes entrepreneurialism whenever it sticks its head up.

Jobs? Where are they? We get some employment growth here and there but not nearly enough as vast numbers drop out of the labor market, often skedaddling to welfare programs of one kind or another. The poor are getting poorer and now setting food-stamp records and the middle class is getting poorer, too. Economic growth is a piddling thing, and the White House tells us the government must spend more.

A recent Peggy Noonan piece in The Wall Street Journal summed up our major issue neatly. It was about the writings of Lee Kuan Yew, a former leader of Singapore who knew the power of economic incentives, helped put them in place there and watched his nation thrive as a result. He says in his writings that America has been something extraordinary in human affairs for similar reasons, but must take care not to give up its culture of robustness and innovation while bowing to the kind of welfare system that destroys incentives and leads to insupportable costs.

The need is for leadership that’s just about the ideological opposite of what we are now getting and that we’re not going to get from the person said to be way ahead against any Republican presidential opponent four years from now, the ultra-liberal Hillary Clinton.

For all kinds of reasons, no congressional leader can hope to be anywhere near a president in leadership heft. Ultimately, of course, we rely on an informed, thoughtful public to put the right people in place and then to hold them to high standards. Your confidence in the citizenry wanes some when you learn — as just one item of interest — that no more than 5 percent of Americans younger than 30 are said in an estimable Pew survey to care much about Washington news. But don’t suppose the American creed has now been munched to death, that no one is working hard to take advantage of grand opportunities or that someone with convictions, character and talent like Margaret Thatcher’s cannot emerge and make the future sparkle.