It’s a good thing that the Margaret Thatcher we remember isn’t running for president as a Republican. A conservative icon, she would nonetheless be tarred today as a “big government liberal,” “raiser of taxes,” “European socialist” and RINO, which stands for Republican in Name Only.
The biographical movie “Iron Lady” centers on Thatcher’s late-life mental decline and flashes back only to the big scenes in her political career. This is entertainment, and so the movie understandably zeros in on her hectoring speeches, the great election night victory, terrorist attacks and, above all, the romance with her husband, Denis, who died in 2003. Meryl Streep wasn’t hired to play Thatcher conducting dry discussions of Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism — though if any actress could make that cinematic, Streep could.
Someone, an American perhaps, should do a movie about Thatcher’s less pictorial brand of conservatism. Like her American ally Ronald Reagan, also eventually claimed by Alzheimer’s, Thatcher saw her mission as reversing years of liberal excess rather than radically remaking the social compact.
Thatcher didn’t believe that tax cuts would automatically pay for themselves with economic growth. That’s why she combined reducing Britain’s income-tax rates with a significantly higher value-added tax. A VAT is a kind of national sales tax. Thatcher explained the move as shifting taxation from earnings to spending. This was tax code surgery, not exorcism powered by magical thinking.
Reagan’s 1986 tax reform paired reductions in income-tax rates to ending the tax break for capital gains. (The capital gains tax has since been lowered to 15 percent.) When deficits started rising dramatically, Reagan faced the music and raised taxes 11 times, taking back half of his tax cut.
In current GOP presidential politics, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has toyed with the idea of a VAT-like system as part of larger reform. Here is the response offered by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign spokesman: “The fact that he’s willing to look at European socialism shows just how far out of the conservative mainstream he is.”
Republican foes of government guaranteed health coverage habitually refer to “Obamacare” as “socialized medicine.” It is no such thing. The health care system envisioned by the reforms is far more conservative than Medicare. And Medicare isn’t socialized medicine, either: It is socialized insurance. The government picks up the bills, but doctors and hospitals still work for themselves.
Britain’s National Health Service is socialized medicine. The providers do work for the government. And Thatcher barely touched a hair on it. Moreover, she defended it with passion. In her book “Margaret Thatcher: the Downing Street Years,” she wrote this: “I believed that the NHS was a service of which we could genuinely be proud. It delivered a high quality of care — especially when it came to acute illnesses — and at a reasonably modest unit cost, at least compared with some insurance-based systems.”
Thatcher dealt harshly with militant unions that were bankrupting the country with strikes and exorbitant demands. The battles many U.S. governors, Republican and Democrat, are now waging with public-employee unions are but a shadow of her showdowns. Her mission, she said, was merely to restore balance between business and organized labor. She also removed disincentives to work in Britain’s extravagant welfare programs, while leaving them intact.
Today’s GOP base would brand these measures as weak-willed capitulation. And it would condemn a Thatcher-like candidate as a “Republican moderate.”
Wonder what the Iron Lady would think watching the Republican debates, if her mind were all there. Thatcher would probably laugh, recalling how she’d have loved to have been called a “moderate” in the days of heavy lifting that made her a conservative hero.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist.