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For Canadian Conservatives, Thatcher was a ‘saviour’

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird signs the book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher at the British embassy in Tel Aviv on April 9, 2013.

The Globe and Mail/Campbell Clark

For Canada's reigning Conservatives, Margaret Thatcher's passing is like a death in the family.

Over seven years in office, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried to cast the Conservative Party of Canada in the Thatcher mould – economically free market, socially traditional and avidly pro-military. This as opposed to embracing centrist Red Tories or Prairie populists such as John Diefenbaker and Preston Manning.

That makes Lady Thatcher, whose unapologetically right-wing policies transformed Britain in the 1980s, really a spiritual forebear to the Harper Conservatives today.

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"The world has lost a giant among leaders," Mr. Harper said in a statement Monday, adding of the former British prime minister that "with the success of her economic policies, she defined contemporary conservatism itself."

For Conservative cabinet ministers, many of whom came of political age as Lady Thatcher began her controversial tenure in office, the "Iron Lady" ranks as a hero alongside U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

In their minds, the Cold Warrior who stared down communism also ended up rescuing conservatism – and everything it represents.

"In the 1970s, conservatism was just a poor, pale imitation of liberalism. Why would anyone vote for it? And here was a woman who said, 'No, we stand for something very different,' " said Tony Clement, the Harper government cabinet minister who is currently President of the Treasury Board.

Before Lady Thatcher took over, Mr. Clement said, "you got the sense that for Western democracies, the wheels were coming off. And she was a saviour."

Lady Thatcher had perhaps no greater admirer in federal Conservative ranks than Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who named a cat after her and, as a politically active teenager, idolized the British prime minister.

For his essay topic in a third-year British politics course at Queen's University, Mr. Baird chose "Popular Capitalism, and the Success of Margaret Thatcher," only to realize the following week that his professor was an eminent Marxist. He's still proud he got an A.

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"She was a conviction politician. And there's not enough of those," Mr. Baird said in Tel Aviv Monday during a tour of the Middle East. "In many ways it will be less about what she accomplished in the United Kingdom than what she accomplished in the world by inspiration, up to now and going forward."

For Mr. Baird, Lady Thatcher was a groundbreaker in reducing the role of the state by privatizing state entities and in confronting, rather than containing, the Soviet Union, which he credits with its fall.

Today, the Conservatives in Ottawa celebrate austerity budgets, preserving a big purse for military spending and shrinking the size and scope of the federal government, while holding out the promise of more tax cuts when the books are balanced.

Mr. Clement recalls how he felt as a young conservative in the late 1970s – an era of big government and rising deficits, when the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was still fresh and the outcome of the Cold War uncertain. Lady Thatcher demonstrated that a conservative politician could reverse the expansion of government and still win re-election.

"We were still in the midst of Pierre Trudeau statism, and that was the consensus among the intellectual elites and political elites," he said.

"Britain was on its knees. It was an economic basket case. It took a lot of contentious battles. But she managed to reverse all that."

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In the statement on Lady Thatcher's death, Mr. Harper on Monday recalled his own meeting with her in London, shortly after he took office. "New to my own duties as Prime Minister in 2006, she provided me wise and gracious counsel in London, the memory of which I will forever cherish."

Sources familiar with the meeting say Lady Thatcher regaled Mr. Harper with stories of her years in power – from the Falklands War with Argentina to the miners' strike that rocked Britain to her experience working with former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Mr. Reagan.

John Williamson, Conservative MP for New Brunswick Southwest, said Lady Thatcher helped set a conservative direction for governments when it came to the economic policies that Britain and other countries should pursue.

"What she did was permanently move the goalposts," Mr. Williamson said.

Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Transport, said Lady Thatcher's impact on Canada stretches over decades – and many of the policies she once defended in the face of great controversy are now routinely accepted.

"Canada has implemented Thatcherism gradually over the past quarter-century," Mr. Poilievre said. It began, he explained, with Mr. Mulroney's free-trade agreement with the United States. Then both federally and provincially, governments enacted huge cuts in spending over the 1990s. Both Jean Chrétien's Liberals and Mr. Harper's Conservatives cut personal and business taxes for Canadians.

"Canada has privatized 30 bodies and agencies in the last 25 years," Mr. Poilievre said. "Not even political actors on the left are proposing to re-nationalize businesses that have been privatized."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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