Thatcher’s legacy in Europe
April 8th, 2013
01:15 PM ET

Thatcher’s legacy in Europe

By Charles A. Kupchan, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Charles A. Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. He was director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the first Clinton administration. The views expressed are his own.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday, altered the course of post-war Europe. As the leader of the Conservative Party, she liberalized the British economy, ultimately forcing Britain’s Labour Party to the political center and irreversibly remaking the country’s political landscape. Meanwhile, she consolidated in her own party a determined skepticism of European integration, setting the stage for the U.K.’s ongoing efforts to keep its distance from the European Union.  Finally, she set a gold standard for Anglo-American relations, forging a close relationship with President Ronald Reagan. Teamwork between London and Washington helped guide the Cold War to a peaceful end.

The economic destruction wrought by World War II ensured the consolidation of a European left with socialist leanings – one strongly committed to the welfare state, labor unions, and economic policies aimed at taming the free market. Thatcher effectively pulled off an economic course correction that fundamentally altered British – and European – politics. By forcing through liberalizing reforms that ultimately produced an impressive economic expansion, she dealt a decisive blow to Britain’s traditional left. Privatizing industries, taking on trade unions, scaling back the welfare state – these and other policies aimed at economic modernization proved uniquely controversial, but also successful in producing results as well as strong electoral support. Thatcher, Britain’s only female prime minister, stayed in office from 1979 until 1990.

By the end of her tenure, Thatcher’s uncompromising ways produced considerable dissent – even within her own party. But the transformation of Britain stuck – made clear when New Labour came to power in 1997. Tony Blair did not undo Thatcher’s reforms. On the contrary, he presided over a remade Labour Party, giving Britain and Europe a new brand of center-left politics much more welcoming of free markets.

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While the structural reforms, both economic and political, set in motion during Thatcher’s tenure did not immediately cross the Channel and take root on the Continent, Britain became an engine of liberalizing energy within the European Community. London began to consistently press Brussels to embrace market-opening policies. And Thatcher’s Britain would eventually serve as a model for Germany and other continental economies that have more recently scaled back the welfare state and seen their center-left parties move decisively to the political center. Indeed, the competition introduced by globalization and European integration is pushing EU member states to embrace many of the reforms that Thatcher brought to Britain decades ago.

Despite her support for a single European market, Thatcher was a profound euro-skeptic. She feared that bureaucrats in Brussels would seek to force Britain to back away from the liberalizing reforms she had put in place. She was similarly averse to the construction of a supranational Europe that would compromise Britain’s national sovereignty.

Although some members of her own cabinet found her animosity toward European integration excessive and counterproductive, Thatcher did help make euro-skepticism a signature issue for the Conservative Party. Prime Minister David Cameron is today fighting the ghosts of Thatcher’s legacy on this front, trying to convince his own party that Britain should stay put in the European Union. He is seeking to negotiate a more distant relationship between Britain and the EU in the hope that more breathing room will convince his compatriots to tolerate continued membership in the union. But a British exit from the EU is a plausible outcome, a result that would both isolate the U.K. and weaken the EU.

Thatcher was equally resolute on matters of defense and foreign policy. In 1982, she went to war with Argentina to defend British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. As a staunch anti-communist, she built a strong personal and ideological bond with Reagan. Both took a hard line when it came to containing Soviet expansionism. But both also saw in Mikhail Gorbachev a leader with whom they could do business. This combination of showing resolve while also taking advantage of an opening with Moscow played a central role in bringing the Cold War to an end.

Teamwork between Thatcher and Reagan perhaps marks the high-water mark of the Anglo-American “special relationship.” Britain and the United States still enjoy a unique bond; they have been partners ever since rapprochement between London and Washington in the late 1890s.

But with the Cold War over and America’s strategic interests having shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Asia, Britain and the United States need each other less than they did during the era of Thatcher and Reagan. Nonetheless, Britain will remain one of America’s go-to partners for the foreseeable future, a tradition that honors Thatcher and her political legacy.

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Topics: Europe • United Kingdom

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. joe anon 1

    thatcher like reagan, clintons, bushes, cheney, obama is a sociopsychopath.

    how our psychopaths help women:

    "From Afghanistan to Syria: Women’s rights and US propaganda" – Julie Levesque

    April 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  2. joe anon 1

    better link, maybe. pictures need to be seen.

    April 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  3. Ferhat Balkan

    The "Iron Lady". She always had my respect. May she rest in peace.

    April 8, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Now we're going to hear about what a "great job" this broad has done while she was the Prime Minister of Great Britain for days to come, Ferhat. I expect to see a lot of idiotic right-wing posts here praising this broad! In fact, if I were Prime Minister of Great Britain I'd pull that country out of NATO and quit taking orders from Washington D.C.!

      April 8, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Reply
    • wjmccartan

      Come on Ferhat, quit trying to be funny. Did you also respect Hitler and Mussolini back in the 1940's? This Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were like two peas in a pod just like Hitler and Mussolini were! This twosome was no better than the other! All right-wing fanatics are the same.

      April 8, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    It is so very important for women to engage in politics.

    April 8, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  5. Muin

    Yeah. Great legacy. Both reagan and thacher started curtailing the rights of workers. Workers now have actually zero rights. These were just super human beings.

    April 8, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  6. wjm

    Everybody is lining up to say what a terrific woman she was, not me. She was one of the first to blame her countries financial woes on organized labor. The damage she brought down on labor is still felt today, the conservative machine is in overdrive trying to discredit labor. There isn't anything positive I have to say about her passing, so.

    April 9, 2013 at 12:50 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    It was actually the issue of Europe which ultimately saw her downfall. After a fractious Euro summit in Rome, she criticised her European counterparts, refusing to countenance any increase in the power of the European Community and outraging many colleagues.
    Back home Geoffrey Howe, resentful since being ousted as foreign secretary, seized his moment to quit the cabinet, deliver a devastating resignation speech and invite challengers for the leadership. Michael Heseltine threw his hat into the ring. Told by close colleagues, that she would lose, she used her next cabinet meeting to announce her resignation.

    April 9, 2013 at 9:51 am | Reply

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