Margaret Thatcher died this week at the age of 87. May she rest in peace.
Thatcher was one of Britain’s most consequential prime ministers in the twentieth century: a resolute cold warrior and ally of Ronald Reagan, and a determined reformer of Britain’s economy and government, through privatization of state-owned industries and cutting of tax rates. Her policies provoked stiff opposition at home, and Thatcher showed a fortitude unusual in professional politicians in sticking to the course she thought right despite public criticism. As she said so famously in her most remembered speech: “The lady’s not for turning.”
We might also add: The lady’s not for jumping. Among all the rest of the commentary on Thatcher’s significance, RealClearPolitics has posted an entertaining and bracing video clip of Thatcher dealing in her unique manner with an unusual request from a Swedish talk show host. As the interview nears its end, the host explains that her show has a kind of gimmick: she asks every guest to stand up and take a jump in the air. With no hesitation, Thatcher explains in return that she has not the slightest intention of doing any such thing, that it would have no significance, that it would be silly, that it would be puerile. Although she does not go quite this far, the gist of her remarks is that only a great fool would make such a request and only a bigger fool would comply.
At first glance, the exchange is exhilarating simply as a display of self-respect and toughness. But Thatcher actually teaches another important lesson, beyond the obvious one that a public person should not have to engage in childish tricks just to curry public favor. She also teaches an important lesson about the true measure of the value of a free society.
In the course of the conversation, the host informs Thatcher that Gobachev was willing to jump when he was on the show. Thatcher responds: “You amaze me. I wonder what he thought of the politics of a free society if that’s what they ask you to do?” Thatcher was known above all as a defender of the free society against communistic despotism. Yet she evidently did not think that the freedom of the free society was on its own sufficient grounds on which it could claim superiority to its competitors. The free society cannot take justified pride in itself in the presence of the representatives of despotism simply because of its freedom, but only if it uses that freedom in a disciplined and dignified manner. That is a lesson worth pondering in an age when both liberals and conservatives (who should know better) trumpet freedom as an end in itself, without considering the moral quality of the purposes to which it is put.