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Britain’s Thatcher An Unlikely Icon For American Conservatives

Margaret Thatcher

In a Friday, July 17, 1987 file photo, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, left, makes remarks after visiting United States President Ronald Reagan, right, at the White House in Washington, D.C (Howard L. Sachs, File/AP)

As an icon of the American conservative movement in the 1980s, it would have been difficult to find a more unlikely figure than Britain's Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday following a stroke.

Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, a full year and a half before Ronald Reagan became president. She hailed from a country seen as a hopeless bastion of socialism by conservatives, many of whom, like Reagan himself, were strongly invested in the idea of American exceptionalism.

At the end of the 1970s, "a lot of conservative intellectuals in the United States thought Europe is lost and that America is next," says Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "Thatcher's voice came out of the wilderness and said, 'Freedom matters.' "

Her rise was equally improbable because of her gender. She was her country's first female prime minister, a possibility she occupying No. 10 Downing Street.

Reagan called her "the best man in England," and she decried notions of feminism as being the sole purview of the left. Writer and campaigner that Thatcher "normalized female success. She showed that although female power and masculine power may have different languages, different metaphors, different gestures, different traditions, different ways of being glamorous or nasty, they are equally strong, equally valid."

Thatcher once quipped that "well behaved women seldom make history" and remarked that "in politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."

Just as Reagan helped move conservatism from the fringes of American politics, Thatcher, with her wit and intelligence, helped do the same on the international stage.

"I think that it was a synergistic, wonderful coincidence that they were coming at the same set of ideas from arguably the two most important countries in the developed world," Brooks says.

"It's true that they borrowed from each other liberally because they were comrades in arms," he continues.

NPR's Frank James says:

"While Reagan would've been Reagan without Thatcher and Thatcher would've been Thatcher without Reagan, the two reinforced each other. They gave the impression that an in-your-face conservatism that stressed individualism, smaller government, anti-unionism, privatization and deregulation in the economy and a defiant stance towards the Soviet Union was on the march globally, that it had the force of history behind it."

To that end, each sought to dismantle what they saw as the welfare state and to clamp down on what many conservatives viewed as the overreach of labor unions.

Regan moved against the air traffic controllers' union, PATCO, in 1981, while Thatcher went head-to-head with, in the words of , "Britain's all-powerful trade unions" throughout the 1980s. She "privatized state-run industries, governing with a take-no-prisoners style that earned her both admiration and dislike," the Journal says.

"They were really working off the same playbook," Brooks says.

Thatcher recalled her first meeting with Ronald Reagan, in 1975, when she was leader of the opposition and he was governor of California. "Above all, I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did," she wrote.

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