[Outlook]Churchill vs. Thatcher

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[Outlook]Churchill vs. Thatcher

It would be a cliche to say that throughout history there were national leaders who became successful despite failures early in their terms.

Looking at the Lee Myung-bak administration, which is making a new beginning with new resolutions, I am reminded of conservatism in Britain in the 20th century.

President Lee and his aides should forget about the legend of Margaret Thatcher, if that is what they look to, and instead they should learn a lesson from Winston Churchill.

Shouting for a stronger government, market economics and politics with conviction, Thatcher undertook a neoliberal revolution led by the Conservative Party in the 1980s. During that time, the economy grew on the surface but conflict between labor and management and other social conflicts never ended.

A generation before her, Churchill opened a golden era for Britain with moderated conservatism when he became prime minister for the second time, in 1951. When Churchill, renowned for his leadership during World War II, came to power, the British people were worried that the old politician would drive the country back to conservatism.

However, Churchill accepted most of the Labour Party’s social welfare policies, opening a new era of consensus between conservatives and progressives. This led to prosperity and social security for the next 20 years.

There are at least two reasons why the Lee Myung-bak administration should copy Churchill’s quiet reforms instead of Thatcher’s revolution, which pushed through market, public sector and education system reforms.

First, the political support base for the Lee administration was an unstable combination of strong conservatives and the new digital generation.

Most of the 48 percent vote that Lee won in the election was from 21st century digital nomads. Their frustration with the previous administration of President Roh Moo-hyun led to support for Lee in the 2007 presidential election.

However, the new administration has made crucial mistakes, and this same demographic staged candlelight vigils only three months after the administration took office.

Support for the president from people in their 50s and 60s underlines their conviction in conservatism, but support from the digital generation is volatile and fleeting ? it can change with a click of the mouse. Those in their 50s and 60s wanted the new conservative administration to become powerful and restore the economy.

But the digital nomads wanted the new administration to respond sensitively to citizens’ demands. Therefore, if the administration depends on conservatives only, Thatcher-style reforms will cause conflict in society. If the administration responds to digital nomads only, its policies will likely become populist.

The Lee administration must be wise and find a narrow path between strong reforms and digital populism.

Another reason why the Lee administration must adopt quiet reforms has to do with the complicated nature of reforms. Just as factors other than democracy play decisive roles in protecting democracy, market economy reforms are determined by factors outside the market economy. As Churchill understood in the 1950s, the achievements of progressives, such as the social safety net and bonding between people in society, must be acknowledged in order to revive a market economy.

Churchill accepted that Labour Party policies could nationalize medical services and build the social safety net. Upon this foundation, he revived the market economy.

The Lee administration also must accept the social security net that the previous administrations have built, and the people’s expectations for it. The administration must calm the fears of the general public, which have been caused by bizarre rumors about possible surges in water or medicine prices.

After that, it can secure support for economic reforms and prepare a driving force for reforms. This is the same with globalization. The administration must not hurriedly plunge into the global market but must accept the people’s demands and hopes when pursuing globalization.

Both Churchill and Thatcher are political giants to be remembered. However, Thatcher’s time is portrayed as a period of growth coupled with conflict. Churchill’s time is remembered as a golden era of consensus that achieved both economic growth and social security.

Whether the Lee administration’s term will be remembered as a troubled time of pursing reforms or as a period of stable and substantial reforms depends on the new decisions that the administration will make from now on.


*The writer is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

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