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World is in need of more Thatchers

When you look at the collection of tepid politicians who hold power around the world these days, it's hard not to feel nostalgia for the woman who may go down as the true political revolutionary of the last generation: Britain's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

For all her nominal conservatism, Thatcher brought radical change to a country that needed it desperately when she took office in 1979. She mobilized the latent political power of the British middle class and used it to destroy the real forces of conservatism _ the trade unions on the left and the gentrified Tory elite on the right _ that had her country in a stranglehold.

Tony Blair gets credit for the dynamic new Britain that emerged in the 1990s, but he's mostly living off the leftovers of the Thatcher revolution. What Maggie did was nothing less than destroy the ossified British class system and create in its place a culture in which smart people could aspire to be rich _ no matter who their parents were or where they were born. She made Britain a capitalist democracy at last.

Contrast Thatcher's passion for change with the political leadership around the world today. It's a sorry comparison indeed. In most of the major industrialized countries, you have leaders whose main ambition seems to be to hold on to power. With few exceptions they lack the animating vision of a big idea. They are agents not of change but of the status quo.

Take France for a start. President Jacques Chirac has to be listed as the world's leading political underachiever right now. His conservative party, reeling from scandal and political torpor, is expected to lose in Paris' big mayoral elections this week. And by clinging to the traditional tokens of French power in the European Union, Chirac managed over the past year to do what for 50 years was unimaginable: create an open breach between France and Germany over the future shape of Europe. That breach was caused partly by Chirac's difficulty in responding creatively to changes suggested by one of the more innovative leaders on the scene, Germany's tax-cutting leftist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Chirac's failure is instructive, because he began with much promise. He seemed eager to destroy the corrupt power centers of the socialist regime of his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand. Chirac moved boldly at first, taking steps to curb the culture of favoritism and kickbacks that had flourished under Mitterrand. But by the late 1990s, Chirac seemed to have run out of gas.

A stark sign of Chirac's problems was a column in the European edition of Business Week last week calling on French conservatives to dump him before next year's presidential elections _ where the polls predict he will lose to the colorless socialist Lionel Jospin.

Who is the candidate of change? That's a question I regularly ask my French friends, and most of them give me the same answer: nobody. That's a shame, because France _ like Britain 20 years ago _ is poised for an economic and cultural breakout, if only some politician would clear away the dead wood.

The same picture of stasis holds true on the other side of the world, in Japan. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is the tired leader of a very tired Liberal Democratic Party that cannot break out of the 10-year slump that has afflicted Japan since the end of its bubble economy. Mori says a lot of the right things, but he does not embody the need for change.

Japan, meanwhile, is slipping into a new recession while Mori and the other aging power brokers of his party play their traditional political games. Perhaps, as a friend in Singapore suggested several months ago, the problem in Japan and France is the same _ they are urban societies led by political machines whose base is in rural agricultural areas. Change will come only when there is a new, truly urban political leadership that doesn't have to make enfeebling deals with farmers.

Somewhere, I'm convinced, there's a political voice for the new Japan. Young Japanese I meet say they have no interest in simply re-inflating the old Japanese bubble and the culture that went with it. They don't want to be "salarymen" and work their entire careers for a single company that saps them dry as sticks. They want a more creative and flexible system. One of these days, a Japanese version of Maggie will emerge to topple the old system and create something new.

Then there's the United States. Whatever else you might say about George W. Bush, he's no Maggie Thatcher. He still looks like a little man in a big suit _ amiable but untested and worrisomely dependent on his dad's old team of political advisers. If W. has an animating political vision _ beyond giving the public a rest from the antics of Bill Clinton _ I haven't heard it. He may be a nice fella, but he's not a change agent.

Bush does embody one political movement that's evident around the world: the rise of the "sons." Hafez Assad's ophthalmologist son Bashar has taken over in Syria, and Hosni Mubarak's son is being groomed for political power in Egypt. In China, there's an entire elite of the children of power, waiting to take over.

Maybe the sons are the real emblems of political culture. No big ideas or big projects, just managing the inheritance sensibly, thank you very much. I can imagine what Margaret Thatcher would have to say about this new ruling elite, but it wouldn't be printable.

David Ignatius is an associate editor of the Washington Post.

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