Time for next generation of conservatives to step up
The last few weeks have brought great change to America’s closest ally: the departure of one prime minister and the arrival of another, the end of a queen’s historic reign and the ascension of a new king.
In the midst of this change, I find myself reflecting on the state of conservatism in our two countries and the lessons I learned directly from Margaret Thatcher, over a pint, two decades ago.
Naturally, now is a time of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, but also a time for possibilities for Liz Truss as she arrives at 10 Downing St.
In the case of the new prime minister, comparisons to Margaret Thatcher are inevitable. Truss, though, has waved them away. “I don’t accept that, I am my own person,” she told the BBC.
That is good news. Conservatives, in England and America, must chart their own courses, not just follow those of past leaders, no matter how great.
It is, after all, what Thatcher herself did. I spent time with the Iron Lady after her prime ministership. Incidentally, this was because of the first copy of National Review magazine I ever read, in 1996. Among the assorted essays, I noticed an advertisement for the Institute of United States Studies at the University of London. Readers were encouraged to apply to the school, where they could “learn about American politics from the British perspective.” Thatcher, as it turned out, was the Institute’s chairwoman.
Just three years prior, and three years removed from her tenure at 10 Downing St., Thatcher had delivered a lecture on the Falklands War to me and other midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. I was fascinated by her intelligence, eloquence and stubbornness. But I only knew about her broadly: She was a champion of liberty during the final years of the Cold War and a dear friend of Ronald Reagan.
The advert in National Review interested me but, as a recently commissioned officer in the Marine Corps, I was otherwise preoccupied. So, I filed away the ad for future reference. When I left the Marine Corps in the summer of 2000, I applied and was accepted to the program and packed my bags for London. Months later, as fate would have it, I was elected by classmates to “carry their concerns” to the school’s board and its chairwoman, Mrs. Thatcher.
Coming face to face with the Iron Lady was thrilling. I will admit, though, that at the time I didn’t really appreciate or fully understand what made her so important.
But as we have struggled to make conservatism relevant on both sides of the Atlantic — to ensure it meets the needs of this generation — I have periodically thought about the fleeting moments I spent with her and why her legacy matters.
One revelation might inspire today’s conservatives: Thatcher matters because she showed conservatives that sometimes bold change is necessary.
Like Reagan, Thatcher was consequential because she was so unconventional. She represented a radical break from the sleepy, comfortable consensus that oversaw the expansion of government across economies and into the lives of citizens after World War II, because that consensus was failing free people.
Her ideals were conservative, but her governing philosophy was pragmatic. She was interested in the policies and approaches that worked in her time and discarded the ones that did not. High taxes and unreasonable regulation were strangling Britain’s economy in the 1970s, so she cut both. Inflation had reached 25%, so she controlled spending and tightened the nation’s money supply. Business creation was prohibitively expensive due to state monopolies, so she privatized industry, enabled citizens to buy shares and encouraged entrepreneurship. Overzealous trade-union leaders threatened interminable strikes, so she stripped them of power and capped public-sector pay. Her record was not without blemishes, but, as a package, doing these things revived Britain’s economy and helped the West win the Cold War.
Thatcher often quoted a line from Faust: “That which thy fathers bequeath thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.” These words reflect her own pragmatic attitude toward winning majorities and governing effectively. This attitude can inform ours today. Victories in politics are temporary; majorities rarely endure. The churn of world events guarantees it. How a movement responds and adapts to changes determines its durability.
This is a blind spot for modern conservatives. We value traditions and are sometimes reluctant to refresh them, so we overlook the reality that improvement and change are themselves conservative traditions. We rightly revere the thinkers and leaders, like Thatcher and Reagan, who have shaped our movement, but there is a difference between reverence and dependence.
Republican-leaning commentators and thinkers often ask, “What would Reagan do?” as if the answers constitute a sort of road map. The answers to that question, though, are rooted in the twilight of the Cold War and the end of the last century, not in the Fourth Industrial Revolution that has upturned lives in the early decades of this one. Our fixation on ideas that worked decades ago sometimes leaves us oblivious to the fact that some of our policy orthodoxies simply don’t serve all the people we represent.
As Thatcher and Reagan charted a fresh course, so must this generation of conservatives. The task before today’s conservatives, whether they be England’s new prime minister and her party or Republicans facing the possibility of leading one or both houses of Congress in 2023, is to hear the frustrations of citizens who feel shut out; to appeal to the better angels of their nature; to build an agenda that addresses their challenges and feelings of disempowerment; and to put forward genuine solutions that bring our longstanding principles — right-sized government, faith in our communities — and reverence for institutions — in line with fresh problem-solving.
As Mrs. Thatcher did before us.
Editor’s note: U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.