Margaret Thatcher’s 10 Principles for Successful Conservative Leadership

IN A SPEECH TO THE CONSERVATIVE WOMEN’S CONFERENCE in 1989, toward the end of her time as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher took pride in declaring that “we in the Conservative Party are conviction politicians. We know what we believe. We hold fast to our beliefs. And when elected, we put them into practice.” Thatcher’s conviction was fundamental to her success as Britain’s longest continuously-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. As she put it to fellow members of Parliament, “we never put power before principles.”

Adherence to one’s convictions is one of the key principles that Thatcher followed throughout her career, principles that are essential for successful conservative leadership today at every level of government. They also apply to conservative business leaders, whether they are captaining a Fortune 500 company or operating a small business with 50 employees. America needs strong conservative leadership, both in government and the private sector. Because the Iron Lady gave such a splendid example of how it is done, her guiding principles are worth reflecting on.

1. Walk with Destiny and Serve a Higher Purpose

Throughout her political life, Thatcher was driven by a sense of purpose, a clear sense of destiny, and a deep-seated patriotism. “Our supreme loyalty is to the country and the things for which it stands,” she reminded the British people in 1979. Her mission as Prime Minister was never in doubt—to save her country from socialist-driven decline and to stand up for freedom in the face of tyranny. On both fronts she succeeded, changing the course of history for the British nation and, with Ronald Reagan, bringing down a monstrous Soviet empire of tyranny.

The example she tried to follow was that of Churchill during World War II, who was to a great degree her role model in this regard, shaping her sense of resolve and determination. She said that Churchill “was the man of that hour, a true figure of destiny, and himself profoundly conscious of the fact.”

This sense of mission and destiny, of living for a higher purpose, distinguishes a great leader from a mediocre one. Thatcher, Churchill, and Reagan all possessed it, yet it is largely absent from the seats of power in Washington and London today. Today’s generation of conservative leaders needs to recapture the spirit of these great figures if the world’s superpower is to be revived and America is to be saved from decline. Margaret Thatcher always thought big, with the future of her nation at heart. She may have come from a small village in Lincolnshire, but her outlook and vision were on a grand scale, driven by selflessness and sacrifice for country. As she declared in a speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, “there is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than ourselves.”

2. Lead with Conviction

Margaret Thatcher was above all a conviction politician. Even her fiercest critics would acknowledge that she was driven by unshakeable beliefs. “It is the half-hearted who lose—it is those with conviction who carry the day,” she insisted. Without courage and conviction, Thatcher noted as a newly elected MP for Finchley, “the others are hollow and useless.” The notion that steely conviction is a fault in a leader seemed ridiculous to the Iron Lady: “There would have been no great prophets, no great philosophers in life, no great things to follow, if those who propounded the views had gone out and said ‘Brothers, follow me, I believe in consensus.’” Consensus for its own sake was the preoccupation of the feeble and the faint of heart. It has no place in true leadership.

3. Stick to Core Conservative Ideas

It is no coincidence that Thatcher won three successive general elections and never lost one. She firmly stuck to conservative principles and advanced a consistent message that voters understood. The British electorate knew what they were getting with Margaret Thatcher, and they rewarded her with unprecedented success. She stood for limited government, free enterprise, privatization, low taxation, strong defense, and an unyielding opposition to socialism. She was a champion of small businesses, declaring war on red tape and burdensome regulations, an enemy of big government and the heavy hand of bureaucracy.

In order to win the war of ideas, conservatives have to be clear in their message, and confident of their values. There is always the temptation to “soften” the message, to “reinvent” the brand, to bend and reshape central principles in order to appeal to different sections of society. The UK Conservative Party has given in to this temptation in recent years, a mistake that cost it an outright majority in the 2010 general election (winning only 36 percent of the vote) and forced it into a difficult coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

A conservative party must not sacrifice its principles in pursuit of popularity. Eighteen months after becoming Prime Minister, Thatcher insisted that “the worst betrayal the British people could suffer at the hands of this Government would be for us to seek a little more popularity now by sacrificing all hope of future stability and prosperity. That is not our way.”

4. Understand the Grassroots

Margaret Thatcher was able to lead her country for 11 years because she understood the beating heart of the British people. She was in touch with “Middle England,” the traditional conservative values of the typical British voter, concerned with bread-and-butter issues like the economy, taxes, law and order, immigration, and the quality of public services. As Thatcher noted in the second year of her premiership, “Those who seek to govern must be willing to allow their hearts and minds to lie open to the people.”

Like Ronald Reagan in the United States, she was not from the metropolitan elite. As a grocer’s daughter Thatcher understood the needs and concerns of hard-working, ordinary people trying to make ends meet, often under the most difficult of circumstances.

She appealed not only to middle-class voters, but also to large sections of the working class, who benefited from lower taxes and the selling of millions of council houses (public housing), which greatly boosted home ownership in Britain. Thatcherism managed to win over large cross sections of society because of its truly aspirational nature, offering an opportunity for less well-off voters to share in Britain’s new economic prosperity, through purchasing their own homes and buying shares in newly privatized companies. At the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, there were just 3 million private shareholders in Britain. By the end of it that figure had risen to more than 11 million. During the same period, the percentage of Britons who owned their own home rose from 55 percent to 63 percent.

While politicians of the Left stirred up resentment between different class and economic groups, Thatcher’s vision was of a country united by common principles where economic freedom fostered opportunity and achievement. Socialism is the politics of division, fear, and loathing, appealing to the worst instincts of humanity. In contrast, as Thatcherism demonstrated, the free enterprise system appeals to man’s nobler instincts, to his desire to be creative and work hard and to advance prosperity through individual initiative and limited government.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Norman Tebbit acknowledge cheers of supporters at their HQ, Smith Square after the Tory victory. Credit: The Times. Online rights must be cleared by News Syndication. (Newscom TagID: niphotos071039.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with Norman Tebbit acknowledge cheers of supporters at their headquarters, Smith Square after the Tory victory in May 1979. Photo by The Times.
5. Be Courageous

“Courage,” Margaret Thatcher once said, “is what you show in the heat of the battle, not at the post-mortem.” When running for high office, American presidential candidates are invariably asked how they will respond to that “3 a.m. call,” the moment when a leader must respond to a crisis with fortitude and boldness. That moment came for George W. Bush with the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York. He rose to the occasion by swiftly launching Operation Enduring Freedom to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and hunt down the terrorists of al-Qaeda. Rudy Giuliani also responded with true grit, inspiring a nation to fight back against Islamist terrorism and recover from the biggest assault on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Who can forget the sight of New York’s mayor walking through the dust-covered, debris-strewn streets of lower Manhattan, leading the city’s rescue efforts on a day that 3,000 people lost their lives at the hands of a barbaric enemy?

“There will be times when the unexpected happens,” Margaret Thatcher said of moments like these. “There will be times when only you can make a certain decision.” She demonstrated that fearlessness herself when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 and again when she confronted the power of Britain’s trade unions during the miners’ strike of 1984-1985. Her leadership in the face of trade union militancy was vital in rescuing the country from its economic paralysis.

But Thatcher’s courage was more than just political. She also displayed tremendous personal courage when the IRA tried to assassinate her in 1984. Not even a terrorist bomb, which narrowly missed killing her in her hotel in Brighton, could keep her from delivering her address to the Conservative Party Conference just a few hours later. The IRA taunted her that day: “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always.” She took no heed of this kind of intimidation and led a sustained British military campaign against Irish Republican terrorists that made them understand that they would gain nothing through a campaign of mass murder. As Thatcher remarked four years later in a speech to women leaders, “The ultimate virtue is courage, the ultimate, the only thing you have got left sometimes—courage and fellowship.”

6. Be Decisive

Political courage and decisiveness go hand in hand, as Margaret Thatcher’s leadership during the Falklands War showed. It is often forgotten that the British task force that sailed 8,000 miles across the world had been assembled within 48 hours. Her decision to launch a liberation force at such short notice was an act of extraordinary leadership, and it carried huge risks. There can be no doubt that the failure of the Falklands mission would have been a national calamity, big enough to bring down the Thatcher government. It would also have scarred the British nation for a generation, deepening a sense of post-imperial decline. “I had total faith in the professionalism, and in the loyalty and morale of the British armed forces,” said Thatcher, and that faith proved to be justified.

7. Be Loyal

On June 11, 2004, Lady Thatcher paid tribute to her great friend Ronald Reagan, delivering a eulogy for the American president at his state funeral in Washington’s National Cathedral. Advised by her doctor against speaking publicly, she recorded remarks that were delivered by video link in the service.

Thatcher’s tribute to Reagan was so powerful because every word came from the heart of a leader who had stood with Reagan through adversity. Loyalty mattered to Margaret Thatcher, and the strength of the Reagan-Thatcher partnership is unlikely to be matched in our time. Thatcher stood with Reagan not only against the Soviet Union but also against the Libyan dictator Gadaffi.

The relationship was not a one-way street: Ronald Reagan frequently gave his support and encouragement to Thatcher. Without America’s military backing during the Falklands War, as Thatcher made clear in her memoirs, Britain would not have been able to defeat Argentina and liberate the islands. The close ties between the White House and Downing Street enhanced Thatcher’s influence on the world stage. The world is a far better place, and a safer one, thanks to the strength of the Anglo-American alliance, a partnership that depends upon shared interests and values as well as upon on the principle of loyalty between leaders on opposite sides of the Atlantic. For Margaret Thatcher, loyalty was essential to successful leadership. As she put it in a press conference in Washington in 1988, “loyalty is a very positive quality. If you cannot give it yourself, you should not be entitled to receive it from others.”

8. Know Your Brief and Prepare

Margaret Thatcher’s opponents could disagree with her message, criticize her ideas, and condemn her policies, but they could rarely find fault with her command of the facts, knowledge of her brief, and the power of her delivery. She took pride in being exceptionally well informed on the details of government policy and the issues that her administration faced, no matter how complex or seemingly unimportant. Parliament can be an extremely unforgiving environment. The separation of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government shields the American president from direct questioning by members of Congress. In contrast a British Prime Minister is expected to face questions from members of Parliament every week when the House is in session—twice a week when Thatcher was Prime Minister. This requires an extraordinary mastery of many subjects, often with little time to acquire it. Thatcher was a formidable debater, as a series of Labour leaders found when they faced her across the dispatch box.

She was also meticulous in her preparation for speeches and television interviews. Major speeches were carefully rehearsed to ensure that every line was delivered with the right tone and emphasis. Thatcher was a naturally gifted orator with a tremendous talent for appealing to the hearts of her audience. But even the greatest public speakers also depend on practice for successful delivery, a lesson that every conservative politician and businessman should heed. There is no substitute for good preparation, and no room for over-confidence, no matter how familiar the speaker is with the topic. A stumbling statement, factual error, or weak message can undercut any political candidate or business leader. In some cases it can even finish a career.

9. Make Your Message Clear

Margaret Thatcher was one of the most successful communicators of the modern era. She could present complex issues in a way that most voters could easily understand. Few politicians in the last 60 years—perhaps only Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy—could rival her as a public speaker. She never hid her own admiration for President Reagan’s extraordinary talent for communicating big ideas to ordinary voters, once remarking that “his fundamental instincts are the instincts of most decent, honourable people in democracy. That is why they felt such a sympathy with him—and then he could communicate.”

Thatcher’s speeches, interviews, and statements, like Reagan’s, always conveyed a clear-cut message. Her 1980 speech to the Conservative Party Conference was a case in point, with her delivery of one of the most memorable lines in recent British history. Addressing the party faithful, she confidently declared, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U’ turn, I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’” With a single turn of phrase, she projected resolve and determination and sent a signal that her free-market revolution was here to stay.

That speech powerfully reinforced her image as the “Iron Lady,” which she had earned in 1976 at Kensington Town Hall. Her “Britain Awake” speech, delivered as leader of the opposition, had sent shockwaves through the other side of Europe. Her warnings against a Soviet Union bent on “world dominance” forced the Russians to take the measure of a formidable new adversary. The speech made Thatcher, still three and half years away from governing, an international figure. It also projected Cold War leadership at a time when there was little of it coming from either London or Washington. It was a sequel to Churchill’s landmark Iron Curtain speech and a precursor to Reagan’s 1983 Evil Empire speech. It was one of the few speeches in history that have threatened an empire and compelled the grudging respect—even admiration—of its rulers.

Great speeches rely on brilliant lines, and often on gifted speechwriters. But they will always ring hollow if they are not matched by a clear set of beliefs and a leader who delivers them with conviction.

Thatcher’s speeches succeeded because the message was compelling and based on a core set of beliefs. They were delivered from the heart by a truly great communicator who understood the importance of delivering a clearly defined message.

10. Deliver a Message of Hope and Optimism

Margaret Thatcher’s put-downs of her political opponents are legendary. In hundreds of appearances at the House of Commons dispatch box during Prime Minister’s Questions, she shattered the egos of countless opposition MPs. Her speeches as well were filled with devastating critiques of Britain’s socialist opposition as well as its bankrupt ideology, broadsides which frequently brought the house down at party conferences.

In the arena of political combat, Margaret Thatcher had no equals in 1970s and 1980s Britain. But Thatcher’s speeches were also replete with messages of hope and optimism for the future. They were invariably positive in tone, offering a brighter future for the British people. Her words were frequently inspirational, focused on national renewal and the restoration of British greatness. The rejection of national decline was her constant theme as a candidate for Prime Minister, presenting an overwhelmingly bright conservative vision for the future.

There is much for American conservatives today to learn from Thatcher’s spirit of optimism. Like Reagan, she was uncompromising in her condemnation of left-wing ideology, but she frequently joined harsh words with a theme of renewal. In politics it is essential to point out and illustrate the flaws and follies of your opponents. As Thatcher demonstrated, it is also vital to present an alternative based on conservative ideas that an electorate can understand.

Thatcher-202x306The depth of despair and economic ruin in 1970s Britain was a national humiliation. Thatcher’s message of hope seemed to many, both at home and abroad, an impossible dream. But she succeeded in turning her country around out of an extraordinary faith in the human spirit, and the principles of liberty that sustain it.

Dr. Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation and a former researcher for Lady Thatcher. Mr. Thompson is a writer and consultant who experienced firsthand how Margaret Thatcher changed Britain while living in Cambridge and London. This article is excerpted from their book, Margaret Thatcher on Leadership: Lessons for American Conservatives Today, published by Regnery Publishing (2013).