Blair on Thatcher

Blog, Role of Government, Peter Holle

Yesterday, PBS Newshour’s coverage of Margaret Thatcher’s passing last night included a great interview with two former high level officials from the Reagan administration, George Schultz and James Baker. The one comment that stuck with me was Baker’s comment that Margaret Thatcher was one of those exceedingly rare individuals “who had changed the arc of history”.

Today’s papers are full of tributes and paens to the Iron Lady from her friends and foes alike so I won’t travel the same ground here except to say that – unlike today’s generic, poll driven, so-called consensus politicians – she was a conviction politician who know where she wanted to go.

What appealed to me most was that she understood instinctively that governments were incompetent managers of commercial enterprises.  By privatizing state owned enterprises she permanently moved the dial away from government ownership of the so-called “commanding heights of the economy”. The average Brit saw lower prices and better services when the politicians and special interests were pried lose from the mediocre sway of cosseted, cost plus state owned enterprise usually set up as low performing government monopolies.


In 1995 the Labour Government acknowledged the new arc of history by removing the sacred Clause 4 in the Labour Party constitution, which called for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.” This had followed a vigorous debate on the British Left about the role of government and the usefulness of decentralized markets in maximizing social outcomes.

Besides ditching the mantra of public ownership the party signalled its policy modernization by rebranding itself as “New Labour.”  Blair went on to lead a New Labour Government in 1997 with the Thatcher revolution intact.   I wrote this 10 year retrospective on Blair back in 2004 which confirmed how completely Thatcher had changed the policy channel.  (Its fascinating to see him doggedly shaking up the National Health Service in search of better patient outcomes.) It was a touching reminder of how influential Margaret Thatcher will remain reading Tony Blair’s remarks on her passing as a remarkable and towering figure yesterday in the Guardian newspaper:

Very few leaders get to change not only the political landscape of their country but of the world. Margaret was such a leader. Her global impact was vast. And some of the changes she made in Britain were, in certain respects at least, retained by the 1997 Labour government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.