For many people, Margaret Thatcher’s resignation (and now her death) will be one of those moments that they will never forget. Like the Kennedy assassination for the previous generation, many will always remember what they were doing when they heard the sad news.
It was November 22, 1990 and I was about to leave my parents’ apartment in Zilina, Czechoslovakia, to meet a friend. Walking out of the door, I heard the radio announce the shocking news - Margaret Thatcher has resigned. How could it be? Wasn’t she a great success at home and a titan on the world stage? To us – the people of Eastern Europe who were enjoying their first year of freedom – she was much more than the first female British Prime Minister.
She was an outspoken voice against communist oppression and a fearless promoter of the free markets. The communist media in Eastern Europe (and socialist media in Britain, one might add) spewed poison against her with obsessive regularity. For us that was very reassuring: if they hated her, she must have been good.
Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, I never thought I would leave my hometown, let alone travel abroad and meet her. But meet her I did. It was October 5, 2002 and I was on a layover in London. Next day, I would board a plane for Washington and begin my work at the Cato Institute.
My friends - Roger Bate, now at the AEI, and Richard Tren, now at the Searle Foundation – invited me to a dinner celebrating the launch of the Frederic Bastiat prize for free market journalism. One of the winners, coincidentally, was Amity Shlaes, whom I will have the pleasure of introducing at a Cato event this Thursday. As Margaret Thatcher arrived – descending the stairs together with Denis - there was a sudden hush followed by great applause. By that time, she no longer made speeches and her public appearances were increasingly rare. Still, her presence added gravitas to the proceedings and launched a great prize that continues to this day.
My friend Veronique De Rugy sat next to Mrs. Thatcher throughout the dinner and so, at some point, I walked over to say hello. Thatcher shook my hand and asked where I was from. When I said that I came from Czechoslovakia, she seemed genuinely delighted. I reminded her that people of Eastern Europe had a genuine affection for her and were grateful for what she did to bring about the end of communism. “You know,” I said, “the communists really hated you.” “Good, good,” she laughed, “I’m glad they did.” Then she gave me one of her piercing looks and said, “We won in the end.”
Yes you did, Margaret.