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Opinion

Op-ed: Goodbye Maggie, and thanks for everything

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Opinion,Op-Eds

There is a faded blue rosette above my desk. In the middle of this staple of British campaigning, which when I wore it made me feel like I had won the pie-eating contest at the county fair, is a vintage campaign button that says "Love Maggie."

I wore it when I was working for Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party in Britain back in 1979. Though I am not sure anyone ever called her Maggie to her face, it was a nickname her supporters gave her early on in her political life.

I have worked on a lot of campaigns. There have been campaigns for Congress, House of Delegates, Board of Supervisors, and at least a half-dozen bond issues of various sorts. I was even a candidate, on the local level, in three elections.

I was committed to all of them, but I never saw them as changing the course of history. That's the case with most political campaigns. The 1979 election was different.

Instead of knocking on doors or making phone calls at home in Virginia, I was an ocean away in Britain. I was supposed to be studying economics and business at the University of Edinburgh, but my passion was politics.

I was involved with the University Conservatives and with the South Edinburgh Conservative Association. I had already worked in a by-election and had even been a delegate to the party conference. However, the real show was the general election.

The Conservative leader was Margaret Thatcher, and under the British system she would be the next prime minister if her party won the election.

Today we spend a lot of time in politics crafting the message. We tweak it, test it, and tweak it again. Thatcher's message didn't have to be manufactured for the campaign. She knew what she stood for. She had a passionate belief in free enterprise, less government, lower taxes and a foreign policy that was decisively anti-communist.

In the late 1970s what she and many other Britons saw was a country that was falling into a sort of dull socialist mediocrity.

Going door to door is the way British campaigns are run. It's a great way to find out what people are thinking. To my surprise, my American accent wasn't of much concern and I heard a wonderful cross section of opinion.

The vast majority wanted change, and a little like the election that would bring Ronald Reagan to the White House 18 months later, when Thatcher's Conservatives won the election, change is what they got.

In Britain, when the party in power loses, the new prime minister usually takes over the next day. This suited Thatcher just fine, since she didn't plan to waste any time.

Her first term was a whirlwind of activity. Social spending was cut, taxes were reduced, a highly successful program to allow people living in public housing to buy their own homes began, and the clout of the all-powerful national unions was curtailed.

Thatcher also began an extensive program to privatize companies that had previously been owned by the government. It was a profound break from socialism.

At the same time, spending on the armed forces, accompanied by a much more unequivocal approach to communism and the Soviet Union, changed the way many in the world had come to view Britain.

It was, once again, a country to be taken seriously. The campaign that saw me knocking on doors all over Edinburgh changed history. But that was years ago. I am now once again looking at my faded trinket, and all I can say, is "Goodbye Maggie, and thanks for everything."

Examiner contributor David S. Kerr is an Alexandria resident.

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