BY DENISE FUREY/ Last week, one of the most-influential conservative political leaders of the 20th century, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, died. Her impact on history was enormous – so much so, its fullest scope only becomes apparent now she is gone.
Many Americans remember her as a loyal political ally of President Ronald Reagan. Her 11-year tenure as Prime Minister overlapped both of Reagan’s two Presidential terms. She like Reagan believed in free markets and the use of monetary policy and not fiscal intervention to solve the economic problems of their day. Both were also staunch opponents of communism, not just because of the government control of commerce in those countries but also the totalitarian control of all aspects of lives of citizens in communist states.
After Gov. Mitt Romney’s defeat in last year’s Presidential election and the few seats we lost in the US Senate and House of Representatives, Republicans were despondent. We looked back to Reagan to see what lessons we could learn from his years in power so that we can revitalize the Republican Party. Perhaps we Republicans can learn from Thatcher’s legacy not only as it relates to the national stage but also to state and local politics.
At first blush, one may think Thatcher was too “polarizing” to offer any insights into our current political dilemmas. After all, the pundits state Republicans are out of touch with society, have chased away our moderate party members and have embraced wingnuts. The term “polarizing” is one that many in the media use to describe strong women. While it was repeatedly used to describe Thatcher, it has also been used to characterize Congresswoman Michelle Bachman and yes, even liberal former Secretary Of State Hilary Clinton.
If Thatcher was so polarizing, how did she become the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century? I believe there are three takeaways from Thatcher’s political career: Privatizing state-run enterprises is best for the economy, overly powerful unions can and should be dealt with and finally, we need to recruit and promote women and minorities within the party.
On a federal level, I question whether the government should be as involved in financing mortgages (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA) and offering student loans (Sallie Mae). More locally, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should not be in the business of selling liquor. Happily, a bill recently passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is a step in that direction. I am less optimistic we will see the sale of government-owned businesses at the local level. In particular, the City of Philadelphia should sell the Philadelphia Gas Works and the Water Dept. should be sold to private-sector operators. Although Mayor Michael Nutter wants to sell PGW, I doubt he could get City Council support.
Thatcher faced off with very powerful trade unions. The most-notable case was with the coal unions. Thatcher believed the state-owned coal business needed to be profitable and numerous actions needed to be taken to do so, including closing mines. After a roughly yearlong strike, the unions conceded on most issues. In 1994, the coal industry was privatized in Great Britain.
We also have serious problems brewing with public-sector unions in the US. However, the issue of wages and potential layoffs is less onerous than the need to deal with pensions and other post-retirement plans for public-sector union and non-unionized employees. Both Pennsylvania and Philadelphia public-sector employee pension plans are currently underfunded and expected to worsen. The plans need to be revised and the unions are expected be the greatest impediment to change.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Thatcher herself is an example of whom the Republican Party must recruit. She rose to power in a party dominated not only by men, but men from socially and/or economically advantaged backgrounds. She was the daughter of a grocer who grew up in a coldwater flat above her father’s store.
Not only do we need to reach out to women, but also to minorities.
In recent years, we have seen a number of females and minorities emerge in other states, including but not limited to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. However, in Pennsylvania we have not done such a great job. We have no female Republican US Congressmen, Senators or state row-office holders. Gov. Corbett did appoint some women to responsible positions including Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele.
While Republicans have made some inroads into the minority communities in Philadelphia, the situation remains sad. The only non-white male elected official is City Councilman David Oh. Of the roughly 60 ward leaders only a handful are female most notably Agnes Tilley, Annie Havey and Linda Kerns (whose dog Thatcher is the late Prime Minister’s namesake). Of the 12 Philadelphia members of Republican Pennsylvania State Committee, six are female. However that is because the state party requires that half be women.