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What Margaret Thatcher did for Eastern Europe

13 April 2013

When Václav Havel first visited the United Kingdom as Czechoslovak President in March 1990, Margaret Thatcher hosted a dinner in his honour at 10 Downing Street. By then, Havel’s team, populated partly by chain-smoking dissidents, had been in active politics for only a couple of months. The Prime Minister did not hesitate to use the opportunity to coach the group of unlikely Czechoslovak leaders. ‘She was very direct in giving us advice about economic transition, about what we should and should not be doing,’ remembers Havel’s former press secretary, Michael Žantovský, who is currently serving as the Czech Ambassador in London.

As last week’s street parties in Glasgow, Liverpool and Brixton showed, Margaret Thatcher remains a deeply divisive figure in the UK. To Eastern Europeans, this is puzzling. From our side of the iron curtain, it was always exceedingly clear how lucid she was about the evil of collectivism – an impression amplified by the amount of propaganda used by communist regimes to depict her in the worst possible colours.

In part, her role was symbolic. When she visited Gdańsk in November 1988, twenty thousand Poles came to the streets to greet her enthusiastically. After her historical meeting with Lech Walesa, she said that she had ‘felt the spirit of Poland for [herself]’.  The value of her visit, giving hope not only to Solidarity supporters but to the entire dissident movement, was enormous.

Symbols matter. In Czechoslovakia, the communist party newspaper, Rudé právo (‘The Red Law’) chose to ignore the Gdańsk episode, providing instead a short notice about her talks with the Polish government about ‘the need to energise economic cooperation between the two countries’. But there was no coming back. In Poland it took less than two months since Thatcher’s visit for the Polish regime to recognise that it was fighting a losing war and start talks with Solidarity, which would lead to dismantling of communism in the country. Czechs and Slovaks had to wait for another year.

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It is difficult to assess to what extent she and Ronald Reagan were directly instrumental in bringing down communist regimes, by taking a hard line on the Soviet Union at various international fora. However, it is clear that her personal and intellectual example was crucial in directing economic and political transitions in Eastern Europe.

Thatcher influenced a whole generation of Eastern European leaders, including Leszek Balcerowicz of Poland or Václav Klaus of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic. And although she never saw him as her disciple, she had a lot of esteem for Havel, whose open defiance of the communist regime she greatly admired

Her influence on Eastern European politics was not just intellectual. More important than her admiration for Hayek were her reforms that brought the U.K. economy on the track of economic growth. In the late 1970s, the share of state-owned enterprises, overregulation of the economy, and a lack of macroeconomic discipline created a very similar set of reform challenges as the ones facing Eastern European reformers in the 1990s.

Her uncompromising pursuit of privatisation and economic liberalisation showed to the world that big, wholesale changes were possible in a short period of time, effectively discrediting the case for a gradual transition from communism in Eastern Europe. That was important, because Eastern European countries that tried gradual economic reforms ended up entrenching corruption, bad governance and cronyism, without any of the alleged benefits that gradualism was supposed to bring.

In short, her success in fixing the British economy gave Eastern Europe an example to aspire to. Thanks to her example, Eastern Europeans of the early 1990s understood well that bold and sometimes painful reforms were a necessary condition for Western levels of prosperity. Somehow, I doubt that the current generation of Western leaders are inspiring the same sentiments in citizens of emerging democracies of the world.

Dalibor Rohac, born and raised in Czechoslovakia, is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. He tweets at @daliborrohac.

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Show comments
  • Daviejohn

    Of all the Articles I have read on Thatcher in the past week this one catches the person she was, better than any other I have read. Excellent read.

  • 2trueblue

    M Thatcher was bright, industrious, practical, had great integrity, talented, organised, a great leader, and a woman. She was inspirational, and believed that every one should make the best of themselves, whatever that took. She was also fallible, but for the UK she was the best things that happened to stop the terrible rot and path the UK was on.

    The fact that she achieved so much both here and abroad is obviously something that some do not wish, or are too ignorant to take on board is nothing new. We live in a time when there is so much access to information and yet have a vacuous youth and media, who wish to live on prejudices and on deliberate incomplete quotes such as “there is no such thing as society” … Obviously too challenging for them to give the full quote.

    I hope that her funeral will not be spoiled, and that the media will play their part by showing and encouraging decency and respect, rather that relishing in being small minded, and their prejudices.

  • Hookeslaw

    The crowds in Trafalgar Square today, unkempt and hooded were a magnificent advert for socialism and for voting tory.

    • Julian_F

      Hardly “crowds”. A miserable turn out for a miserable lot of losers, after many years of planning.

    • Their lips are moving so….

      Many of them kids who were not even born when Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street. Their heads full of mangled, rubbish, history and incorrect facts.

      They display the seemingly innate nastiness of the left. They have an absolute belief that if anyone believes anything different from their view of things, those people are wrong and should not be entitled to hold that view – something, they believe, must be done to stop this kind of thinking. They go out looking for a fight and are prepared to destroy anything which THEY decide is symptomatic of what THEY decide is wrong. Rather than discuss and debate, they rather seek to overwhelm with aggression and noise.

      Many would rather live in a Peoples Republic than a Democracy. I hear that the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula is a lovely place to live for people like this.

      • Andy

        The Fascist Left always behaves like that.

  • lgrundy

    “an impression amplified by the amount of propaganda used by communist regimes to depict her in the worst possible colours”.
    Ditto the BBC.

    • Daniel Maris

      That’s so ignorant. The BBC did far more than Thatcher ever did to undermine the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. I used to listen to BBC World and BBC Europe when I was younger – I remember how effectively they undermined communism. And of course there were all the foreign language broadcasts. Also, while she may have opposed the Soviet Union she did nothing to oppose the far more brutal dictatorship of Communist China, butchering poor peaceable Tibetans.

      • alabenn

        The BBC lgrundy is talking about is the World Service which 30+ years ago was a different kettle of fish to the worthless television service we in this country have to suffer.

        The output from the BBC is nothing short of abysmal with very few programmes of merit all presented by the most smug holier than thou products of Daddies money you could imagine.
        In the interests of that new meaningless buzzword fairness, add Mummies money to the pot.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    It has frequently occurred to me that Margaret Thatcher’s part in the downfall of the Eastern bloc might be the reason why she has been detested by the Left establishment in this country, and the concomitant brainwashing of our population, especially the young. Robbed them of their Communist Utopia, as it were.

    • HarryTheHornyHippo

      V good point. Not thought of that.

    • Daniel Maris

      To a certain extent but then George Orwell who did so much to expose the nature of communist dictatorship isn’t despised on the Left.

      I think it was far more to do with the fact she embodied a whole range of attitudes from free enterprise, anti-trade unionism, support for right wing authoritarian regimes, distrust of the anti-apartheid struggle, sexual and gender conservatism, individualism, traditional dress code, middle class disdain for the working class, reflex nationalism, provincialism and so on, that the Left finds distasteful. She was a walking incitement as far as they were concerned in much the same way as a dungaree wearing, lesbian, NUT/SWP member on strike is going to incite the right. :)

      • Curnonsky

        I think you will find as much, if not considerably more disdain for the working class on the Left than the Right. The whole point of socialism is to keep the working class happy – and in their place.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    Steady on with the word “men”, A B!

  • Span Ows

    Yes indeed, well said.

    • Andy

      Thanks be to God for Lady Thatcher. RIP.

  • Span Ows

    Wonderful article Dalibor, so refreshing. This needs shouting from the rooftops…and of course highlights why many on the Left really hated her.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Mr R,

    It may be difficult to quantify exactly what influence Reagan and Thatcher had on events over there but one thing is sure. If anyone like Clegg, Milliband or Obama had been there instead of them, you and your compatriots would still be working in quarries or forestry jobs – if you were lucky.

  • anyfool

    Margaret Thatcher remains a deeply divisive figure in the UK. To Eastern Europeans, this is puzzling.

    It should not be puzzling, they should reflect back to the totalitarian government they grew up under, they governed by control and hate, anyone who did not think like them and had the temerity to voice differences were killed, if they suspected you of this you were killed or imprisoned.

    They also used hate in that they indoctrinated schoolchildren who turned on their friends and even family.

    This is standard operating procedures for the left and that is what is happening here and the rest of the Western world, joining the EU for you is a version of Back to the Future.

    Communists used to say that Capitalists would sell us the guns to kill them with, but it is not that, we have a cancerous incubus of socialist hate growing in the heart of our Society, that is what will do for us it will keep growing till it lays waste to the most successful way of life ever devised.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Well said. We are heading incrementally towards being East Germany as those pulling down our protections and freedoms talk loudly about how important they are.

      • anyfool

        That Labour and Cleggs clots are rushing down this slippery slope I can understand, they are takers not doers, but for people in the Tory party leadership to allow this whether by default or design is unthinkable.

        There is more despair to come before people realise these people emptied the exchequer and mortgaged the future almost as far as they can.
        There is only one source of money they have not maxed out yet and that is private pensions, Brown started on these in 97 but went instead for cheap credit which is on its way out.
        It will boil down to stealing pensions to keep the show on the road or cutting their own peoples jobs and perks, it will not be the latter.
        In the end it will collapse because when parasites have only other parasites to live off there really will be nothing left for the left.

    • huktra

      “we have a cancerous incubus of socialist hate growing in the heart of our Society”

      Good turn of phrase but we know the cancerous incubus of our society is the creeping opprobrium heaped on immigrants by May and let ride by Cable, Clegg and co who should know better.

      • anyfool

        Would May include these immigrants who.

        1. Slice female genitals so they do not get excited by their tiny dicks.
        2. Raping and Pimping very young white girls.
        3. Train and bus bombers.
        4. Honour killers, fathers who get their own brother and son to kill the daughter,
        5. The brother and son rape girl so she is not a virgin when going Allah, very honourable.
        6. Claim vast amounts of benefits 50%+ of Pakistani immigrants.
        7. Ditto Somalis.
        8. Leaders in murder statistics.
        9. There is lots more, need I go on.

    • Hookeslaw

      Mrs Thatcher is not a deeply divisive figure. I would have thought not as divisive as Blair and possibly not as divisive as Brown.

      Mrs Thatcher did not put as brutal and divisive a figure as Campbell at the heart of her government. And she did not put as loathsome a figure as McBride there either.
      For 13 years Gordon Brown was at the heart of everything which was destructive to Britain. but I would not dance on his grave, nor wish him into an early one. I am a decent tory not an evil nasty socialist.

      • anyfool

        I have not said she was, I was using the part of the original text as a starting point.

        I agree with the rest of your post entirely.

  • In2minds

    Mrs Thatcher -“it was always exceedingly clear how lucid she was about the evil of collectivism”

    By contrast David Cameron loves the EU!

    • Hookeslaw

      Mrs Thatcher signed the single market agreement. Cameron was today arguing for reform with Merkle.
      The EU is not about collectivism; you could argue it is about bureaucracy. Indeed socialism in France is already on the rocks and being criticised by the ‘Commissioner for the Euro’.
      The free market in investing billions in the car industry in the UK – its all foreign money.

  • John Jefferson Burns

    Even Liberals like Clinton admired her:
    “Like so many others, I respected the conviction and self-determination she displayed throughout her remarkable life as she broke barriers, defied expectations and led her country”

  • Augustus

    A most uplifting post! She did most certainly use her influence with Ronald Reagan, and with Pope John Paul II, that the ‘evil empire’ could be destroyed. Her legacy in the light of such boldness must surely stand as the gold standard for all elected leaders seeking the political courage to make difficult decisions.

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