Thatcherism and the Republican future

Odd though it may appear at first sight, the death of Margaret Thatcher and the publicity given to her record could have an impact on the future of American politics. Here in USA there has been wide coverage of her achievements and legacy and it arrived as one of the political parties is re-assessing its course for the future.

At present, the Republican party seems to have lost its way. There is no clear policy view and different voices on the right wing have differing priorities. The Republicans have failed to achieve a majority of the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, and Romney lost in November 2012 in part because, as former governor of Florida Jeb Bush has said, the Republican party is seen these days as a 'white men's country club.' It has lost contact with the changing demographics and racial makeup of the country because it does not convey a message that attracts and holds the majority of the young, the non-whites, the urban dwellers, and those who see their jobs being lost and their incomes stagnant while the people at the very top of the financial pile are receiving salaries, bonuses and other compensation that are constantly opening up an ever widening gap. In sum, it can be argued that Obama didn't win the last election as much as the Republicans lost it.

In addition to being able to find a message that will attract and hold a majority, the Republican party needs to identify a leader with character and charisma who can inspire people. Conservatives look back to the halcyon days of the Reagan presidency when, under his avuncular style, the president saw very clearly what he wanted to do and held to the view that freedom and personal liberty were intimately involved with releasing the energies of free enterprise.

In USA, Margaret Thatcher's performance is seen in much more positive - that is, less divisive - terms than in UK, just as Kennedy was seen in UK in a much more positive light than he was regarded in USA. Thatcher's positions strike many chords among American conservatives: Her clarity of thought and determination, her commitment to private enterprise, her leadership in the Cold War and toughness over the Falkland Islands, her early recognition that business could be done with Gorbachev, her strong support of presidents Reagan and Bush, and her declared objective that "I came to office with one deliberate intent, to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation." This last sentiment is fully in accord with the independence of the American spirit.

Of course, the political systems of the two countries are very different. Politically, the UK is a center-left country whereas USA is center-right. The prime minister in UK is also the leader of the political party that has its hands firmly on the levers of control in Parliament, a situation with Congress that a US president would dearly love to have but is denied by the Constitution. Margaret Thatcher stepped into the UK political fray when the country was in the dumps and the British Conservative party was in disarray. The present state of the US domestic economy is not that of the UK in 1979, but the Republican party is flopping around and seeking rejuvenation. Thus, it is just possible that being reminded of her example of clear-eyed leadership could become a rallying cry for the currently disordered and confused right wing in USA to reorganize and reenergize itself in time for the next presidential election in 2016.

But it would be a misinterpretation of the Thatcher legacy to expect that moving sharply to the right would be successful. Her own sharp right policies and her personal style became very divisive in the country at large and in the end her true heir was not the Conservative party, which since her downfall in 1990 has never won a clear popular majority, but the Labor party of Tony Blair which was pulled closer to the center of British politics.

Obama cannot run again and at present the likely Democrat front runner is Hillary Clinton. But the Republican field is as yet wide open - whether a Thatcher clone would be the solution and, if so, whether such a person will emerge remain to be seen.

Derek Boothby is a resident of Manchester and a former arms control official with the United Nations.


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