I was quite sad when I read the news that Margaret Thatcher passed away on Monday. I met her in London on two separate occasions, and had a chance to talk with her for a good little while on one of those occasions. She was obviously highly intelligent, and also charming and witty.
The main reason I was sad — and the reason I went out of my way to meet her — was not because of her personal qualities, but because of her towering legacy as the U.K.'s longest serving prime minister of the 20th century.
Inflation is a scourge, eating away at the value of savings. When Margaret Thatcher's government took power in May of 1979, inflation was above 10% and rising fast, hitting 21% the following year. By 1983, it had fallen below 4%, and it remained low for most of the rest of the decade.
How was inflation tamed? By abandoning the Keynesian dogma that government needs to stimulate the economy. Instead, the 1981 budget instituted policies of fiscal restraint. It was painful, with unemployment rates going up temporarily, but it did the trick.
But reining in runaway inflation was not by any means Thatcher's only accomplishment. Coming to power following the Winter of Discontent and its widespread strikes, she successfully took on big labour, gradually giving freedom of choice back to workers and making unions more democratic. She also privatized and deregulated across the board, from telecommunications to electricity to steel production. And she made it possible for millions of tenants to buy their public housing at large discounts.
Thanks to these and other measures, the "sick man of Europe" (as the U.K. was then called), which was ranked 19th out of 22 OECD countries in terms of wealth in 1979, rose to second place by 1997, when Thatcher's party relinquished power.
Her record was not perfect, of course. We can always imagine that she could have done more in certain areas, done things differently in others. But we must remember that she had to contend with political constraints. She was fighting an uphill battle, with many forces marshalled against her.
Margaret Thatcher deserves our thanks for championing free-market ideas and pushing to implement them as best she could. The world needs these important ideas. Indeed, Canada could use another Margaret Thatcher, too.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.