Why is the UK attitude towards Thatcher so different from the US attitude to Reagan?

30 years since Margaret Thatcher’s election as PM. I enjoyed BBC Parliament’s coverage. But David Willetts is a Thatcherite no more. Boris Johnson is. Maybe, if he is to find the ambition for London that Philip Stephens says he still lacks, it will be a Thatcherite ambition. This at a time when The Spectator, the magazine that Johnson used to edit, of course, is urging David Cameron to live up to what they see as Thatcher’s legacy:

“The challenge for David Cameron is huge. If, as seems likely, he becomes Prime Minister next year, it will be his task to ensure that future generations do not look back on the years 1979-2009 as a blip — an aberrant resurgence — in the otherwise steady decay of a once great nation”.

Johnson seems more eager to embrace Thatcher than Cameron. Perhaps, the differing attitudes of these two rivals for the leadership of the Tory Party, reflect a deeper fault line in the Tories – or, maybe, Cameron is simply more sensitive to the national mood than Johnson. Cameron may remain loath to reveal himself as a Thatcherite while public opinion continues to be as starkly divided over Thatcher as Tim Adams recently observed in The Guardian:

“It’s exactly 30 years since she came to power, nearly 20 since she was unseated and still none of us can rationalise, quite, what we feel about her – either our loathing or our adoration. Even as her era and her “-ism” abruptly ends – in the bail-out and humbling of her market economy, the smashing up of the banks – no one can get to us as a nation quite like she can”.

There is no Thatcher myth. There never was. There is a massively polarising figure and fierce debate about her policies. In contrast, a book has recently been published with the title Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future. Amazon tells us of Will Bunch’s book:

“Nearly two decades after leaving office and four years after his death, the legend of Ronald Reagan looms larger than ever over America’s political life. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the 2008 presidential campaign, with Republicans – especially presumptive nominee John McCain – appearing to run more aggressively for the Reagan mantle than for the White House itself, and with even Democrats debating how to add some Reagan lustre to their progressive platform”.

I know that Gordon Brown had Thatcher round for tea but no Labour person seriously wants to add some Thatcher “lustre to their progressive platform”. That would be absurd. Philip Collins has done a good job of explaining why this is so.

So, why does the UK attitude towards Thatcher seem so different from the US attitude to Reagan? Was Reagan less divisive? Only fighting Communists without, rather than “enemies within”? “Enemies” which never existed on the same scale in the US as they did in the UK, suggesting the less ambiguous US attitude towards Reagan may find its historical origin in the weaker socialist traditions in the US. This is the right nation, after all.