The outpourings of praise and abuse which have greeted death of Lady Thatcher this week, the longest serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, demonstrates once more what a dominant political figure she was, both in the United Kingdom and in the world. Indeed, both are very different as a result of her legacy. Love her or loathe her, none may deny the profound effect that her brand of conviction politics had on the world around us, and not least in Poland.
When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, the United Kingdom was indeed the sick man of Europe with an ailing economy at the mercy of the ever more ludicrous demands of trade unions, constant strikes, rampant inflation, and an atmosphere of gloom and despondency. The prevailing view was seemingly that nothing could be done, the easy life of decline being preferred to the harder work of reconstruction. Margaret Thatcher had the will to do what needed to be done – often in the face of stiff opposition from her cabinet colleagues – so that by the time she left office eleven years later the country’s economy was radically improved, the trade unions had been tamed, it had been clearly demonstrated that private enterprise is a better custodian of the means of production than the state and the United Kingdom could once more take its rightful place in the world.
And she changed that world. With Ronald Reagan she stood up to the Soviet Union. For the first time in many years the Soviet leadership faced a United Kingdom and United States which was no longer prepared to accept the inevitability of the atheistic communism or the belief that the best that could be hoped for was sort of convergence between capitalism and communism with an ever larger role for the state in the economy. No, Margaret Thatcher believed in the justice and morality of a free society. Just as compromise and conciliation with powers ultimately hostile to the common good had failed under her immediate predecessors in the United Kingdom, so the message that folk were willing to work hard provide they and their families reaped the benefits of their efforts, was as right for the far side of the iron curtain as it was for the United Kingdom. Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) visited Poland in 1988, met Lech Walesa and doubtless gave him some good advice. Indeed, the shock therapy prescribed by Poland’s first minister of finance was clearly inspired by the radicalism of Mrs Thatcher. In Poland, as in the United
Kingdom, the short term results of the reforms were difficult for many folk – rising unemployment (or unemployment for the first time in Poland) – but the re-introduction of free market disciplines so suddenly in Poland resulted in a depression that was shorter and shallower here than anywhere else in the former soviet eastern Europe.
Many accuse Mrs Thatcher of having been divisive and confrontational but many at the same time choose to forget
that the times in which she lived were divisive and confrontational. She realized that doing nothing and continuing
the decline was not an option but that the facing down of the vested interests necessary to put the economy of a firmer footing would require determination and conviction – sometimes there really is no alternative. Of course, perhaps predictably, we have seen the mindless scorn and tasteless jubilation from certain left wing elements in
the United Kingdom. I was discussing this with a Polish friend over dinner in London on Tuesday, but a stone’s throw from the Ritz where Lady Thatcher had died the day before. He seemed genuinely shocked by this display of
gratuitous offense because, good manners aside, he like many others from Poland remember Mrs Thatcher as a key figure in the defeat of communism. Mrs Thatcher’s values of toughness in adversity, self-reliance and success through hard work, have inspired a generation of Poles to take advantage of their new found freedoms in which she played a major part in winning. To the left Mrs Thatcher was a divisive figure but for many others she helped to unify the continent and the fact that my Polish friend lives and works in London and I live and work in Poland
is one small example of the possibilities she helped to create, as Poland has once more joined the family of democratic nations and reaps the benefits.
Without Mrs Thatcher’s unfailing conviction of what was right, the United Kingdom and Poland, to name but two, would have been gloomier, poorer and less free places.