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Margaret the Magnificent

May she reign forever.

By From the April 1988 issue

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MARGARET THATCHER HAS BEEN in office for longer than any other British prime minister in the twentieth century. She is the most militantly conservative of any British conservative leader, and yet she has done more than anyone to change the country, politically, economically, and socially. People even speak of a “Thatcher revolution.” She does not like ideologies, but she has produced an “ism” of her own--“Thatcherism.” No other British prime minister, not even Winston Churchill, has ever had an “ism” attached to his name. She wants to take government off the people's backs, and yet she has magnified the power of her own government in order to achieve that end. She has taken so much command into her own hands that she is more like a President—a Ronald Reagan or a Charles de Gaulle—than she is like a prime minister as hitherto known in the British constitution.

Her rise to power was wholly unexpected, and due almost entirely to a moral quality that has become more evident with every test she has faced: courage. When Edward Heath came up for re-election as leader of the Conservative party after its defeat in the general election of February 1974, no other Conservative member of Parliament had the strength of mind to stand publicly against him, even though privately most of those MPs disapproved of Heath's leftish policies and his charmless style. Margaret Thatcher, who was then a little known minister of education, a person of lower middle-class origins, and a woman, and thus a most unlikely candidate for leadership of the British Tories, took the risk of being accused of disloyalty by a Party passionately attached to the principle of loyalty and challenged Heath. She won by a handsome majority on a secret ballot. Heath sulked in defeat and made it all the easier for Mrs. Thatcher to rally the support of the party in a systematic movement to the right.

It soon became clear that she had another personal asset besides courage: energy. Mrs. Thatcher sleeps only a few hours at night, and for sixteen hours a day she is a high-powered dynamo of alert activity. Her colleagues and subordinates may tire and wilt, but she never does. If she has managed to gather virtually all the reins of government into her own hands, it is because fatigue has often made her Cabinet partners yield them more willingly than they might otherwise have done. On television, she often looks like the proverbial school headmistress, yet she has always proved a pleasing person to meet in private life, gracious, neat, elegant, pretty, and also very courteous, in striking contrast to the arrogant, bombastic, and ill-mannered Edward Heath. Even the most senior Conservative politicians have seldom tried to oppose her will, and when they have they have usually failed.

INEVITABLY SHE HAS BEEN compared to Ronald Reagan, with whom she shares a common outlook on many political principles and policies, but she has never enjoyed the almost universal acclaim experienced by Reagan at the height of his popularity, or faced the hostility he has had to endure since his opponents gained a majority in Congress. Winning three general elections in a row, she has always had a solid parliamentary majority behind her and an increasingly divided opposition, an opposition more effective in fighting in its own ranks than fighting against her. She has also had a certain amount of luck.

The unforeseen invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentinian dictator Galtieri enabled her to demonstrate her iron will as a patriotic leader in a war against aggression, and impose herself on the whole world as a formidable champion of liberty. The fact that left-wing elements at home and abroad supported the fascistic Galtieri despite all their claims to be “anti-fascist,” made it all the easier for Mrs. Thatcher to capture popular feeling behind her cause. Nationalism of a patriotic sort became part of her re-invigorated conservatism, part of “Thatcherism.” From the Falklands War onward she could count on the backing of a public that was far more broadly based socially than the traditional Tory constituency.

She was lucky again in that during her term of office the Social Democrats broke away from the Labour party to form a pragmatic alliance with the Liberals. In the British system of parliamentary elections, this meant that the anti-Thatcher vote could be numerically much greater than the pro-Thatcher vote without causing her to lose her majority of seats in the House of Commons. All she had to do to stay in power was to ensure that her party's candidates received one vote more than the highest vote attained by either of the two opposition candidates. It became all the easier for her to do this at the 1987 election, when the Labour party turned to extremism and so alarmed the British middle classes that many deserted the centrist Alliance to vote for Mrs. Thatcher in order to keep Labour out, with the result that the centrist Alliance rapidly disintegrated. Mrs. Thatcher had effectively eliminated the so-called "Third Force" from British politics, and restored a two-horse race that the Labour party has little prospect of ever winning.

One must not, however, attribute too much of Mrs. Thatcher’s success to good fortune. For if luck helped her to capture support from people previously unsympathetic to the Conservative party, notably the working-class voters, it was will power alone that enabled her to remove from the leadership of that party its traditional upper-class bosses. For insofar as “Thatcherism” is an ideology, it is one that has made a clean break with two central features of the old school of British Toryism—paternalism and amateurism, with the unspoken implication that the ultimate power must remain in the hands of persons born and bred to rule, privileged people with a moral and benevolent concern for the underprivileged. It was the paternalism of the Macmillans, Douglas-Homes, and other such upper-class leaders that had produced years of “consensus politics” with the Labour party, a consensus that had only served to perpetuate the grip of socialism on the nation. Mrs. Thatcher made it her business to rid her own cabinet of people she called “wets” and replace them with people who shared her own dislike of “consensus politics.”

With the departure from her administration this January of Viscount Whitelaw, on grounds of ill health, the last representative of Tory paternalism left the stage. The aristocratic wets have by now completely given way to hardworking middle-class newcomers, as ambitious and unsentimental as Mrs. Thatcher herself.

THIS CHANGE OF STRUCTURE in her government was a necessary part of what has been her most important achievement, the conquest of trade union despotism, which was choking the British economy to death. She forced the unions to accept democratic government. She put an end to the almost continuous strikes that were such a prominent feature of the British scene in the 1970s. She also brought inflation down from something like 20 percent to less than 5 percent. She removed the innumerable rules and regulations that previously thwarted commercial and industrial activity. She enabled the City of London to become the busiest financial center in the world. She made sure that budgets were balanced, and made the currency strong.

This is not to say that Mrs. Thatcher's Britain is a better place than it was thirty years ago under Harold Macmillan. Indeed to those who remember those days Britain as it now is can seem a horrid place, with three million unemployed, run-down schools, a defective health service, dirty streets, racial conflicts, prison riots, violent crime, dangerous railways, overpriced labor, incompetent management, heavy taxation, and even telephones that are constantly out of order. The case for Mrs. Thatcher’s policies is that things would be very much worse if she had not come to power when she did. Her predecessor as prime minister was James Callaghan, a professional trade unionist, and the trade unions, in order to prove that he was their puppet and not their boss, staged a series of strikes such as had never before been experienced. The Labour government had to make repeated appeals to the International Monetary Fund to lend the country money and to prop up the failing pound. Britain appeared to be in a condition of terminal decline. The loss of the colonies, the failure of the smoke-stack industries to survive in the face of Asian competition, the inability of the gentlemanly ethos of the British elites to match the modernizing programs of their rivals in continental Europe, the low morale of the workers coupled with the tyranny of the union bosses, had brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy when Mrs. Thatcher was first elected prime minister.

She immediately proposed a remedy: to get rid of socialism and revive the economy with the spur of competition. The most telling proof of the success of her formula can be seen in the eagerness with which other countries that have experienced socialism have followed her example. Even socialist party governments, such as those of Mitterrand in France, Lange in New Zealand, and Hawke in Australia, were persuaded by the success of Mrs. Thatcher’s methods that socialism, after all, does not work, and free enterprise is best—best not only for increasing profits, but for producing more national wealth of the kind in which everyone shares.

“Thatcherism” is as much an economic as it is a political doctrine, even though Mrs. Thatcher herself did not take much interest in economics until she became prime minister. She was educated as a scientist and worked as a lawyer before she went into Parliament; as minister of education in Edward Heath’s government she went along readily with the egalitarian policy of transforming selective grammar schools into comprehensive high schools. But when she decided to challenge Heath for the leadership, her closest support came from Sir Keith Joseph, an intellectual who argued for the free market philosophy of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek against the prevailing interventionist economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes. Inspired by Keith Joseph, she found in such sources an extensive theoretical underpinning for policies to which she was instinctively attracted—attracted, some people suggested, as a grocer's daughter who knew how to run a store. As a result, she has never been at a loss as prime minister in parliamentary debates to meet her adversaries on any level of theoretical or practical reasoning. Without being an intellectual, she can be dazzling in intellectual argument.

FORCED TO ACKNOWLEDGE her brains and her guts, her critics have usually questioned her heart. She is often accused of not “caring.” During the Miners’ strike of 1985—the decisive test in her struggle to crush trade union despotism—she was repeatedly accused by bishops and other custodians of the moral law of being indifferent to the sufferings of the underprivileged. More recently, in her determination to impose a poll tax on everyone in place of the existing property tax—or rates—on property owners, she has been accused by the same critics of deliberately robbing the poor to ease the fiscal burden of the rich. Nevertheless, she has never modified her policies in response to such accusations, but seems rather to pursue them with all the more self-confidence and aplomb.

As a result, she is also probably the most controversial and not only the longest-serving prime minister of this century. Neville Chamberlain between 1938 and his resignation in 1940 was widely detested for appeasing Hitler, but Mrs. Thatcher’s enemies seem to hate her with an even deeper hatred because it is her whole philosophy they detest. She has never been pilloried to the extent that Reagan has, although in that respect it has undoubtedly been to her advantage to be a woman. To the dismay of feminists (who seem hardly to regard her as a fellow-female) she basks in the chivalry of menfolk. The individuals she has fired from office—and that includes most of the old Conservative party mandarins—have bowed their heads gracefully to the axe.

She has alienated several of the most deeply entrenched institutions of the country without any visible loss of authority. The churches, especially the Church of England, the universities, and not least the elitist campuses of Oxford (which voted against awarding her an honorary degree) and Cambridge, the medical profession in its colleges and hospitals, scientists in their laboratories and scholars in their academies, have all used their enormous prestige and influence to attack Mrs. Thatcher, without making much impact on her popularity or any impact at all on her thinking. In the seventeenth century King James II was deposed for invading the privileges of these groups, but Mrs. Thatcher has successfully ignored both their reasoned arguments and their groans of discontent. Hence the charge that she is heartless.

It would be less than fair to suggest that she is heartless with regard to ordinary peoples needs and rights. If taxation has increased rather than diminished while she has been in office, that is because she has put more money into health and welfare. Not that her critics think that this is enough, for the demands of the welfare state in Britain as elsewhere increase by leaps and bounds, so that there have been cuts in vital public services, side by side with even more waste in others.

THE ONE PROBLEM that Mrs. Thatcher has failed to solve is that of the massive bureaucracy. Although Mrs. Thatcher took care to rid herself of certain civil service mandarins with as much dispatch as she rid herself of the old Conservative party mandarins, she has not been able to discipline the tens of thousands who flourish with tenured jobs in the lesser ranks, and she has failed to introduce efficiency into a civil service that has perfected over several generations the art of concealing and protecting its use of power.

This is perhaps the great weakness of her three administrations. Where she has not been able to provide the spur of competition, monopolies have become more wasteful, incompetent, and oppressive than ever—and this applies as much to such privatized monopolies as the telephone system as it does to such state-owned monopolies as the railways and welfare services. Most people in Britain are better off under Mrs. Thatcher’s government than they were before she came to office. Wage increases on average are well ahead of inflation. There has been a 15-percent rise in consumer spending since 1980, a 30-percent rise in retail sales alone. But this prosperity is not evenly spread. There is still much misery in Scotland and the north of England, sites of the old decayed smoke-stack industries. In the south of England, where the money is, the price of housing has tripled in eight years while houses in the north are still cheap. This means that an unemployed worker cannot move to the south where labor is in demand because he cannot afford the housing. The revenues of North Sea oil, which once promised to make the whole country richer, are largely consumed in the provision of welfare payments to keep able-bodied unemployed in idleness in cities that developed around the factories and mills and mines of the Industrial Revolution. The productive centers of the “Thatcher revolution” are in London or in the high-tech industries that congregate around the universities and airports and harbors that are closest to continental Europe.

Mrs. Thatcher has undoubtedly made a success of Britain’s membership in the European Economic Community. Previous governments took so long to make up their minds to join that they had to accept admission on terms dictated by France and Germany. Mrs. Thatcher, with her dogged refusal to make any sort of compromise, has changed all that. She has made her European partners knuckle under and allow Britain to benefit from membership on the same terms as the other European states, and her authority in the community is certainly no less than that of President Mitterrand or Chancellor Kohl. The Channel tunnel, which other governments have been proposing for over 150 years, has actually got started under her administration, and with private, as opposed to public, finance behind it.

Her foreign policy has been governed by a sense of the real as distinct from the ideal. She was one of the first Western leaders to speak of Gorbachev as a statesman with whom one could do business, without in any way softening her opposition to Communism. Likewise, she has shown, in dealing with South Africa, that while she is no less opposed to apartheid, she does not believe that economic sanctions against Pretoria will either make the Afrikaners introduce reforms or improve the condition of the blacks. Wild animals, she remembers, are tamed by skill and cunning and not by force.

She keeps her whip for use on domestic animals, and lately she has been waving it at the British press. American observers, used to a system where there are virtually no state secrets and a security service that leaks like a rusty bucket, are amazed that Mrs. Thatcher should spend so much energy in seeking legal restraints to stop active and retired agents from publishing their memoirs and revealing the inside dope on British espionage and counterintelligence. Her argument is that the promise of silence all agents undertake is a contract like any other, and must be enforced; and that the public interest is not the same as what interests the public to read about in newspapers. Her view is that the real public interest demands a secret service that keeps its secrets, staffed by officers who keep their word. A Victorian view? 

MRS. THATCHER COULD WELL say that in Victorian times people would have done their duty without any legal action being needed to compel them. Courts have to be asked to act today because the old unwritten codes, the gentlemanly precepts of the past, no longer secure good behavior. In a very important sense of the word, Mrs. Thatcher is not a liberal. She wants to release people from the constraints of the state, of written laws and regulations, but at the same time to restore the authority of society itself, of unwritten laws and of morality. She repudiates the liberal doctrine of John Stuart Mill according to which society is the enemy of liberty. For her, freedom resides in a community where each individual freely follows the promptings of conscience, freely accepts the need to be honest, scrupulous, industrious, and just, and in which society disciplines itself, through the power of custom, habit, and tradition. She would like to see teachers and parents transmit those values to the young to a greater extent than is done at present, schools and family life in Britain having much the same defects today as those in America.

This is why Mrs. Thatcher has found herself promoting innovations that entail an increase rather than a lessening of state power. She is introducing a “national curriculum” of subjects to be taught in schools, taking control away from locally elected bodies and vesting it in the central government. She is putting the universities under the tutelage of a new authority that will be dominated by bureaucrats. She has fortified the existing broadcasting monopolies, in order the better to resist the propagation of violence and immorality by the media. She would like to have tougher law-and-order policies than the majority in Parliament will allow. Most of these provisions must be understood as means toward the re-education of the nation. When that process is complete, and society proves able to rule itself without the intervention of central government and the law, she would expect to see the state withdraw from the social sphere as she has already withdrawn it from the economic. To this extent she seems to agree with Karl Marx: the state must be enlarged before it can wither away.


Maurice Cranston is professor of political science at the London School of Economics. His latest book is Philosophers and Pamphleteers: Political Theorists of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press).

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