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Four Who Also Shaped Events: Putting the Great Back in Britain

4 minute read

For Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the year began inauspiciously. She had achieved the dubious distinction of being Britain’s least popular national leader on record and her Conservative government had dropped to a humiliating 29% approval rating in opinion polls. The newly formed Social Democratic Party was running strong, and within her own Conservative Party there was considerable grumbling about her hard-line economic policies, which had brought high unemployment and an ever increasing number of bankruptcies.

But Thatcher wraps up her year a stunning winner, her iron-lady image polished to a high luster abroad, her stature as a political leader restored at home. It was a year that, thanks to a war 8,000 miles away, she will mark as a turning point in her fortunes. As a British businessman puts it: “In 1982 Prime Minister Thatcher restored our national pride.” Her rating in the polls is up to 44%, and many Britons confidently predict that she would win an election handily if she chose to call one in 1983.

It was on April 2 that Argentine troops invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote and irrelevant British colony 400 miles off the Argentine coast. The House of Commons reverberated with cries of “Resign!” Thatcher boldly dispatched a task force, which grew to more than 100 vessels, to the windswept South Atlantic. It was a 19th century show of forceagainst “a tinpot dictator,” as the British haughtily described Argentine President Leopoldo Fortunate Galtieri.

Few, least of all the 8,000 troops who sailed to the sound of brass bands and cheering, anticipated the bloody battles that lay ahead. But all attempts at a diplomatic settlement failed, and war it was. It was an impressive late 20th century display of fighting for a principle—that a nation must defend its sovereign territory.

Catastrophe was always only an Exocet missile away, but Thatcher never wavered. “Failure?” she once asked derisively. “The possibilities do not exist.” Seventy-four days later, the white flags of surrender were fluttering over the Falklands and victory belonged to Her Majesty’s forces. Never mind that 255 British lives had been lost (750 to 1,000 for Argentina) or that six British navy ships and a merchant vessel had been destroyed. The triumph upheld both pride and principle, and with it came the so-called “Falklands factor” that lifted British spirits as well as Mrs. Thatcher’s standing in public opinion surveys. For the first time in the Thatcher years, a major poll found more Britons optimistic than pessimistic about their country’s immediate future.

As the Falklands factor wanes, Thatcher remains her self-assured self. Unemployment is 13.2%, the industrial base continues to shrivel and growth may not exceed 1.5% in 1983; still she boasts that her policies have brought the inflation rate down to 6.3%, the lowest in ten years. She continues to promise that she will “put the ‘Great’ back in Britain.” Thatcher has taken on the powerful trade unions and thus far has not come a cropper. At the same time, she has staunchly resisted industry’s pleas to soften her austere monetarism. She has also been lucky. The Labor Party opposition is a shambles, split by left-right fratricide, and the Social Democratic Party’s momentum has faded as fractious Britain united behind its resolute leader in the Falklands war.

A Thatcher associate, suggesting that the next election could turn on the contrast in leadership, observes: “This Prime Minister leads from the front, with her chin out.” The man on the street puts it plainly: “She’s gutsy.” Even many of her numerous enemies acknowledge that the lady is a leader, even as they despair over where she is leading them.

Meanwhile, Thatcher, 57, looks ahead with a confidence she could not command twelve months ago. At the Tories’ annual convention in Brighton this year, the slogan was THE RESOLUTE APPROACH, and no one doubts that in any election campaign Thatcher will trumpet her readiness to battle any comers, whether they be crusty trade union chiefs, Argentine generals or hectoring Commons members. And, as ever, she plans to prevail. When a close friend recently asked her, “Who will come after you?” she replied insouciantly, “After me—there’s me!” No one thinks she is joking.

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