Political Animal


April 08, 2013 11:57 AM Thatcher and Reagan

By Ed Kilgore

One of the aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s career that made her so iconic to American conservatives was her almost eery foreshadowing of Ronald Reagan’s career (sort of the reverse of the Clinton-Blair relationship). She won control of the Tory Party in 1975, just before Reagan’s near-miss effort to wrest the 1976 Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford. She won her first big general election in 1979, a year before Reagan’s breakthrough in 1980. As Charles Pierce points out today, Thatcher’s highly symbolic splendid little war in the Falklands in 1982 preceded Reagan’s “breaking the Vietnam syndrome” invasion of Grenada in 1983. Her government was re-elected by a landslide (the largest since the Labour landslide of 1945) in 1983; Reagan was re-elected by a landslide in 1984.

Reagan did, thanks to the U.S. Constitution, leave office in 1989, a year before Thatcher was forced from 10 Downing Street. But he was also fifteen years older than Thatcher (she was five years younger when her prime ministership ended than Reagan was when his presidency began), and so didn’t have her awkward post-power denouement.

From a “movement conservative” point of view, the legacy of both leaders was marred by tax heresies: Reagan’s agreement to two tax increases during his first term, and Thatcher’s ultimately fatal embrace of the “poll tax” (a local per capita levy intended to replace property taxes). Thatcher’s tax, however, can also be viewed as a precursor of the American conservative movement’s infatuation with regressive tax “reforms” like the “flat tax.”

“Neutral” historians have often viewed both leaders as having served as a “corrective” to the “excesses” of liberalism (or in Thatcher’s case, democratic socialism) whose policies eventually wore out their welcome; while Reagan’s approval ratings were generally good during his second term, his party lost control of Congress in 1986 in a notably bad performance. For poor and middle-class folk who experienced both regimes, however, life could be difficult at the “best of times,” and both Thatcher and Reagan aroused a degree of bitter opposition that has been blurred by time. But not at YouTube. As suggested by commenter smartalek earlier today, here’s the ska band English Beat—or to use their UK name, The Beat—performing “Stand Down Margaret” in 1982.

UPDATE: Commenter Gandalf is furious about my brief description (before knocking it down) of a common belief that Thatcher and Reagan were useful if temporary “correctives” to Left excesses. I don’t know if Gandalf (a) doubts a lot of the usual suspects think this, (b) thinks, despite my follow-on, that I agree with it, or (c) just doesn’t like references to CW that don’t have specific links. Maybe I should not have used the term “historians,” but there is zero doubt in my mind that this treatment of Reagan and Thatcher is extraordinarily common in the large group of people who think of politics as an endless oscillation between Left and Right tending towards “the center,” whatever that is at any given moment. It’s not that far, BTW, from what Barack Obama famously said about Reagan back in 2008. So I think this anger at me is a bit misplaced, unless it’s about the failure to supply links, and on that point, taking the time to find linkable general-purpose histories of Anglo-American politics to document a POV that I’ve heard for decades would really cut into the blogging day.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Walker on April 08, 2013 12:19 PM:

    Thatcher will also be remembered for supporting Apartheid and declaring Mandela a terrorist. Given Reagan's wonderous "contributions" to race relations, you could say this is another thing they had in common.

  • Gandalf on April 08, 2013 12:21 PM:

    So who were those neutral historians. And please define the alledged "excesses" of liberalism. Otherwise your little article here is pure horse shit.

  • buggy ding dong on April 08, 2013 12:22 PM:

    Don't forget "Pigs: Three Different Ones" in 1977 when considering musical tributes to Maggie.

    Bus stop rat bag,
    ha, ha, charade you are
    You fucked up old hag,
    ha, ha, charade you are
    You radiate cold shards of broken glass
    You're nearly a good laugh
    Almost worth a quick grin
    You like the feel of steel
    You're hot stuff with a hat pin
    And gun fun with a handgun
    You're nearly a laugh
    You're nearly a laugh
    But you're really a cry

    Roger was not a big fan.

  • Michael W on April 08, 2013 12:41 PM:

    Ed, I think you don't really realize how truly reviled Maggie became during her tenure. Here's another song you might not be familiar, from the musical Billy Elliot. The last line of the chorus celebrates the day because it's one day closer to her death.

    Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher

  • Mimikatz on April 08, 2013 1:08 PM:

    The British working class, unions, leftists and Thatcher's other enemies were much more clear-eyed about how they were being screwed by the "Iron Lady" than their counterparts in the US were vis a vis Reagan, who was almost equally damaging long-term to the US.

  • c u n d gulag on April 08, 2013 1:14 PM:

    Thatcher and Ronnie, two open festering postules on the butt-cheeks of humanity, ruling two countries seperated by an ocean, and the same language.

  • JoyousMN on April 08, 2013 1:25 PM:

    Ed, the song you're really looking for, if you want the left's full opinion of Thatcher is Tamp the Dirt Down, by Elvis Costello.

    I was thinking about this song this morning, but Dan Savage put it very well in his tweet:

    "Woke to news of Margaret Thatcher's death. First thought: has anyone gotten a reaction from Elvis Costello?"

  • Richard Cownie on April 08, 2013 1:28 PM:

    The analogies between Thatcher and Reagan are bogus.

    1) Thatcher was never popular. Her popular vote totals
    in 79, 83, 87 were 43.9%, 42.4%, 42.2%. She started out
    not very popular, and got less popular each time, holding
    power only because the SDP's split from Labor led to a
    divided opposition which got hammered by the first-past-the
    post electoral system. In Scotland, where the SDP was
    hardly a factor, the Conservatives were reduced to a rump
    of just 10 seats in 1987, and never recovered.

    2) Greanada was a cakewalk; the Falklands War was a large-scale operation requiring most of the Royal Navy,
    considerable losses of ships and men (see HMS Sheffield,
    Galahad) and a rather high risk of disaster (a couple of Exocet missiles hitting an aircraft carrier could have
    been terrible).

    Anyhow, while I greatly disliked Thatcher's policies, by
    all accounts she was generous and loyal to her friends.
    And her decline was sad. RIP.

  • stevio on April 08, 2013 1:33 PM:

    Thatcher was also the leader that waged the war with the Falkin Islands ordering her ships into battle and then remarking that they were "in some difficulty". I also seem to remember the threat to annihilate the Fulkin's if they tried to sink , I think it was the Queen Mary or Elizabeth troop ship, with all of those Brit Marines aboard. What a bafoon. I think historians will ultimately tie her as an Albatross around the neck of the "Great Communicator" and B movie star Ronald Raygun...Zap...

    They pretty much deserved each other.

  • kyle on April 08, 2013 1:34 PM:

    Gandalf! This just in ... you're a fucking idiot.

  • Gandalf on April 08, 2013 2:39 PM:

    Ed didn't mean to hit a nerve or disparage you. Really was interested in who supposed neutarl historians you were referring to and what the supposed liberal excesses were. Oh by the way Kyle settle down.

  • MBunge on April 08, 2013 3:36 PM:

    "And please define the alledged "excesses" of liberalism."

    Were you alive during the 1970s in either Britain or America? 'Cause anyone who was could probably educate you on both the very serious problems facing each country and how feckless each nation's liberal politics seemed to be when it came to addressing them.


  • C. P. Zilliacus on April 08, 2013 4:49 PM:

    A huge difference between Thatcher and Ronald Reagan - I don't recall Mrs. Thatcher ever pandering to the likes of the so-called Right-to-Life movement; or to Bible-thumpers like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson; or to anything resembling the Gun Owners of America or the National Rifle Association - or other "new right" social organizations.

    Reagan did so - and did so repeatedly.

  • Gandalf on April 08, 2013 4:58 PM:

    MBunge-Yes I was alive the 70's and there's always problems but those seem insignificant when compared to todays with the exception of total nuclear war with the Soviet Union which wasn't relegated to the backburner by liberals . So please just tell me what problems are you talking about? And you say that liberal politics were feckless when dealing with them but compared to todays masters of getting nothing done , correct me if I'm wrong, at least they were making an attempt to get something done.

  • Fritz Strand on April 09, 2013 9:17 AM:

    I recall early on in the Reagan administration a meeting in the White House with the CEOs of Americans auto manufacturers. After the meeting Lee Iacocca walked out saying "They just don't get it". We then saw the acceleration of auto jobs moving to Mexico.

    What Thatcher and Reagan share is the destruction of their manufacturing base and a turn toward the financial industry. And since finance is by nature less dependent upon mass employment and cooperation with the working classes we also saw an ossification of classes both here and in Britain.