Margaret Thatcher, Fighter

Harvard Business Review

Margaret Thatcher is dead. For most Britons of my generation she was the dominant political figure. People either loved her or hated her and she seemed, if anything, to thrive on that conflict. Her consensus-minded opposite numbers in Europe (mostly male) certainly regarded her with disapproval. She was too strident, an iron lady, not for turning, all the stereotypes applied to strong-minded women in power.

Part of her crime, perhaps, was to be a conservative. It would have been far more convenient for most women's rights and civil rights activists to be able to point to a socialist as a female role model. Thatcher was towards the hard right of the conservative party, someone who wanted to reverse the socialist experiment of Britain's post-war years. But the socially progressive were very much wedded to that model. For these people, Shirley Williams of Britain's Labour Party was a far more agreeable role model for women.

So why was Britain's first woman Prime minister a true-blue Tory? After all, Labour politicians were, on the face of it, much more supportive of women in politics.

Part of the answer, perhaps, was plain old cynical politics. Conservatives got to look progressive because they had a woman as leader, and a reasonable number of non-conservatives might vote also for her party because she was a woman. In a first past the post system, that would be good electoral math.

Having a woman front the economic policies of the conservatives might also perhaps have made their platform seem a little more palatable. Conservatives were generally seen as representing the interests of the privileged establishment. Conservative politicians were often the product of Britain's elite public schools and they mostly sounded as if they had a silver spoon in their mouths. You would not say that about a grocer's daughter from Grantham (even if she did affect a "posh accent" and had been to Oxford).

Branding and packaging considerations aside, it's clear that Thatcher was driven, highly motivated, and astute. She could play hardball politics with the best of them, an ability that many men found hard to resist, if you are to believe the riotously popular diaries of Alan Clark (a maverick conservative and notorious womanizer who formed part of Thatcher's coterie).

Psychologists might make something also of the fact that she was very much encouraged in her ambitions by the men in her life. Her father, Alfred Roberts, was a stalwart of local politics in Thatcher's hometown of Grantham, a local alderman and sometime mayor, and encouraged her to aim high. Her rather older than she husband Denis (whose apocryphal letters in Private Eye caused merriment to a generation of readers) provided the financial security that allowed her to pursue a career in politics.

Any and perhaps all of the above could be advanced to explain Thatcher's success. But at the end of the day, perhaps none of those reflections matter as much as the fact that Thatcher represented a set of ideas whose time had come.

By the 1970s, Labour had arguably run out of steam. After decades of leading a progressive social agenda it had created an economy in which organized labor held a disproportionate share of power. Britain was over-regulated, overtaxed, and under-productive. With an economic model severely challenged by the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and with the massive oil reserves in the North Sea yet to come on line, British voters were receptive to Thatcher's idea that Britain needed to get back to work the old-fashioned way.

Her formula reshaped Britain's economic orthodoxy and became for two decades and more the dominant logic of politics. And if the financial crisis caused some to question that logic, it remains largely intact. Arguably, it was her very success in realizing her ideas that undid her. As long as she represented a work in progress, much could be forgiven. But once she had achieved her big goals, the sound and fury sounded increasingly shrill. It was a pity, perhaps, that she was so brutally cast aside (in, essentially, a palace coup), but it may have been inevitable.

Fighters like Thatcher are almost doomed not to recognize when their time is up; it's what makes them so good at achieving their goals.

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