Before acquiring power, Margaret Thatcher was nothing. She was trained as a chemist. Her career in politics was marked by doggedness, but no one, before her accession to office, would have noted her as a distinctive British personality, a woman who for a time could embody the national will. It was power that established her importance, and power that brought into being all of her now-immortal incarnations—diva, mother of the nation, coy flirt, hissing serpent, stern headmistress, eyes of Caligula, mouth of Bardot, screeching harridan, frugal housewife, Boadicea the Warrior Queen, and Iron Lady, all in one.
Whether admired or reviled, Thatcher provokes a question that anyone who has traced her life and her time in office must inevitably ask: Why her It is, in some ways, the most interesting question about her; it is also the least answerable. It would be tempting to say that this is an irony that Thatcher herself would have appreciated, but of all the qualities attributed to her, a sense of irony is least among them.
She didn’t belong to the constellation of English political leaders who, even without power, would have compelled the interest and curiosity of the time in which they lived. Had William Gladstone or Benjamin Disraeli never climbed to the top of the greasy pole, as Disraeli once put it, both men—by the force of their character, their literary abilities, their culture, and their capacity conspicuously to glitter—would have been a part of the historical drama of the nineteenth century. It is not in their company that Margaret Thatcher should be placed. Failing to command the obedience of her cultural superiors, she would have been uninterested in their company, anyway. Like the proverbial hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin’s parable (itself based on Greek myth), she was meant to do one thing: accumulate and exercise political power. It was power that established her importance, not her importance that established her power.
Her character, certainly, had something to do with it, and in office these aspects of it revealed themselves to be the most remarkable: the fixity of her moral landscape, her self-confidence, her self-discipline, her ruthlessness, and the molten lava of energy at the core of her personality. Out of these qualities she fashioned of herself a kind of Kryptonite against all forms of socialism and collectivism, both in Britain and the world. She did so precisely as the war against socialism at home and abroad was ripe for the winning—at least for a time—and in so doing, created the Margaret Thatcher not only of history, but also of myth. Where these qualities came from and why they manifested themselves suddenly in her, of all people, no one knows. It is one of the great mysteries about her and in a larger sense, about greatness itself; there will never be a satisfactory answer.
She had, as well, two other distinct and remarkable gifts, also of inexplicable origin. Almost to a man, or in this case a woman, the historical figures who matter have had the ability to recognize forces accumulating that others either ignore or do not see; and when given power, they have the capacity to master them. Thatcher was among these historical figures. She did not accumulate power for its own sake; she exercised it to pursue certain aims. She perceived accurately that Britain was in decline, and she understood that unless the decline were reversed, it would soon be irreversible. It was a singular judgment, one not widely made. Socialism was advancing in Britain. She halted it, proving at once that it could be done, that a single figure could do it, and that a woman could be that single figure.
None of this was known before.
Claire Berlinski, a City Journal contributing editor, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.