Always Right

It has been nearly six years since Margaret Thatcher passed away. I was on my way to board an aeroplane from London to California. By the entrance door to the plane, there were dozens of newspapers on the shelf, with their front pages announcing her death. Looking at the iconic images of her, my heart sunk miserably. That day and in the following weeks, there was a lot written and discussed about Thatcher. There were celebration parties, to my distaste. Some time afterwards, I came across this little book titled Always Right by Niall Ferguson, with Thatcher’s resolute portrait as its front cover. I knew that I must read it.

Having read a couple of books about Thatcher before, I appreciate that in this book Ferguson connected his own experience and perspectives of 1970s and 1980s with the social and political environment of Thatcher time. Perhaps my own admiration (whether blind or not) towards Thatcher leads me to a very favorable opinion of this book. When I met Ferguson recently, I did not realise that he was the author of Always Right. Our brief conversation left me feel the chasm between us, a British historian and writer, vs, a scientist with endless fascination of history and literature, despite a shared strongly favorable view of Thatcher. But then I hope many many millions of people across the globe would find Thatcher a great leader of her time despite the flaws. At the very minimum, keep an open mind, read and discover before forming a strong opinion.

By contrast, Thatcher — rather to our surprise, it must be said — gave us hope. And part of the reason was her refusal to give answers like Callaghan’s. “My job is to stop Britain going red,” she had declared in November 1977. This refreshing directness was a very large part of her appeal. Yes, of course, her policies were a vast improvement on the dismal mix of corporatism and stagflation that had gone before. But what made Thatcherism so impressive to a young punk like me was Thatcher’s own aggressiveness. Yes, there was a streak of punk in her, too — in the way she gloried in confrontation, right to the very end of her eleven years in power.

As early as 1975 she had come up with a wonderful line about the Labour Party: “They’ve got the usual Socialist disease — they’ve run out of other people’s money.” This she contrasted memorably with what she called “the British inheritance”: “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master … They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.”

Like a true punk, Thatcher loved a fight. “Oh, but you know,” she said in a 1984 TV interview, “you do not achieve anything without trouble, ever.” And she could put the boot in to lethal effect. “The trouble with you John,” she told a wavering back-bencher in her last, desperate days in office, “is that your spine does not reach your brain.” That was a condition from which a great many Britons suffered in the late 1970s. But not Margaret Thatcher.

“If you are looking for somebody to pick up principles trampled in the mud, the place to look is not among the tramplers.”

Thatcherism was not just about raising productivity or reducing unemployment. Far more important was the goal of defeating inflation and restoring prosperity to the middle class….Naïve economists look at the wrong indicators when trying to assess the Thatcher achievement. They fail to see what the project to restore British capitalism should be measured by capitalist, not socialist standards. They also fail to see that to break the inflationary spiral that had eroded British competitiveness in the 1970s required a measure of what would come to be known as “shock therapy”.

The point about privatization, however, was not just to make money for investors. It was to increase the efficiency of the privatized utilities.

“It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation…”

“I knew that I could save this country and that no one else could,” Thatcher wrote in her memoirs. “There was a revolution to be made but too few revolutionaries. … I believed that (my Cabinet colleagues) had … become convinced of my basic principles … I now know that such arguments are never finally won.” These words sum up the events that led to her resignation.

Ferguson wrote: Nevertheless, we should never understate the magnitude of her achievement….She was the leader, proof that sometimes it really is a single individual who can change the course of history.

To me, personally, Thatcher achieved in inspiring me to find my way to London; she and other women in history instilled in me the belief that a woman can achieve what she sets her mind on and can change the history. Meanwhile, her style, hair or handbag or pearls, could be as iconic as Churchill’s cigar.