In Praise of Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election after the vote of no confidence in Jim Callaghan’s government. Callaghan had not been particularly disastrous as Prime Minister until the winter of 1978/9, the so-called Winter of Discontent. Thatcher then proceeded to transform this country from a largely free one to a largely unfree one.
Yes, we are told that Britain was the Sick Man of Europe in the 1970s and emerged into the 1990s a prosperous and libertarian country. Yes, the scandalously high tax rates were slashed, for example the top rate of income tax was cut during Thatcher’s time in office from 83% to 60%. Yes, union power was reduced. Yes, people were allowed to buy their own council homes. Yes, we went to beat up the Argies in the Atlantic.
However, was Thatcher a Good Thing for Britain? It’s my own opinion that the best thing about the woman was her rhetoric. She could talk about liberty and property with great passion and vigour, but when it came to the delivery of those two things, she failed. She spoke very well about rolling back the state, but under Thatcher, the state grew in both size and scope.
One of her pet hates, or certainly one of the pet hates of her supporters, was QUANGOs (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations). These are unelected and unaccountable, yet independent bodies which receive lots of taxpayer funding in order to run government services. However, under Thatcher, the number of QUANGOs increased. Maybe Thatcher wasn’t bothered about unaccountable organisations receiving and spending taxpayer’s money after all.
Another one of her pet hates, or certainly one of the pet hates of her supporters, was the prospect of euro-federalism. There was a fear that Europe would eventually begin to take a more direct role in determining the UK’s foreign and defence policy and would push for some kind of political union between the nations in a new federal European state. And yet Thatcher’s elective dictatorship enthusiastically rammed the Single European Act, the first major new European Treaty since Rome in 1957, through Parliament which helped lead to all of these things. Maybe Thatcher wasn’t bothered about European federalism after all.
As a classical liberal, Margaret Thatcher believed in freedom of assembly. After all, in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights, which many libertarians revere, Amendment I clearly provides for the right of the people “to peaceably assemble”. However, in a clear attack on freedom of assembly, the Public Order Act, passed by Thatcher, denied the right to peaceful protest in incidences where the police hadn’t been given at least six days’ notice. As a result, it is now much more difficult to organise sizeable meetings, demonstrations, and protests. Maybe Thatcher didn’t believe in freedom of assembly after all.
As a classical liberal, Margaret Thatcher was, of course, not interested in the creation of a Nineteen Eighty Four style surveillance state. And yet, until the Public Order Act there had long been restrictions on the ability of the state and its agents to spy on us. It was Thatcher who removed them. Maybe Thatcher did want a surveillance state after all.
Anathema to any libertarian or classical liberal is the notion of detaining any person for any lengthy period of time without charging them with a crime. It must surely, therefore, be a reasonable assumption that Margaret Thatcher would have either kept the detention without trial limit at 24 hours or indeed reduced it. Again, no. Margaret Thatcher, as I’ve said, inherited a detention without trial limit of 24 hours. By the time she left office, she had quadrupled it to four days. Maybe Thatcher liked keeping people in detention without trial after all.
Good bye historic civil liberties, it was nice knowing you.
On government spending she must surely be good? No. While she may have slowed the growth in government spending, for the financial year 1979-80 the government spent £93.6bn and by the financial year 1989-90 this had increased massively to £210.2bn. She may have reduced government spending as a percentage of GDP, but this happened under Callaghan also. Also, in 1976, the Labour government cut government spending by 10% across the board. Thatcher did nothing of the sort. Maybe Thatcher liked high levels of government spending after all.
I mentioned taxation above. When we think of Margaret Thatcher’s government, we often think of huge tax cuts. Quite right, too. As a classical liberal, Margaret Thatcher was, of course, interested in reducing taxes. Yet, there is one very good counter example: the poll tax. I can do no better than quote Murray Rothbard here:
The anti-government riots in London at the end of March  were, it must be noted, anti-tax riots, and surely a movement in opposition to taxation can’t be all bad. But wasn’t the protest movement at bottom an envy-ridden call for soaking the rich, and hostility to the new Thatcher tax a protest against its abstention from egalitarian leveling? Not really….
…It is certainly heroic of Mrs. Thatcher to want to scrap the property tax in behalf of an equal tax. But she seems to have missed the major point of the equal tax, one that gives it its unique charm. For the truly great thing about an equal tax is that in order to make it payable, it has to be drastically reduced from the levels before the equality is imposed….
But instead of drastically lowering the amount of local taxation, Mrs. Thatcher imposed no such limits, and left the total expenditure and tax levels, as before, to the local councils. These local councils, Conservative as well as Labour, proceeded to raise their tax levels substantially, so that the average British citizen is being forced to pay approximately one-third more in local taxes. No wonder there are riots in the streets! The only puzzle is that the riots aren’t more severe.
Oh well. Maybe Thatcher quite liked high taxation after all.
Also indefensible is what the woman did to the miners and to the unions as a whole. I live in the north of England and up here we sit on a vast treasure trove of coal which nobody will ever be able to use. In the 1980s, orders were given for the mines to be flooded. Why? For short-term political gain.
Let me explain. In 1984, on the back of a general election landslide caused by beating up the Argies over the Falklands (at the moment that the only redeeming action of the Thatcher regime I can think of), she decided to put Ian MacGregor in charge of the National Coal Board. From then onwards, instead of only closing mines when they ran out of coal, the decision was made to close mines much sooner, i.e. when there was still coal left in them. Coal is a valuable resource and doesn’t only have to be used as fuel. However, by far the strongest union was the miner’s union. If Thatcher wanted to crush the unions (and she did, perhaps because they embarrassed the last Tory government in the 1970s), she would need to crush the miners. And that is exactly what she did. This meant, in effect, the government enforced shut down of an entire industry and the wasting of tonnes of a very important resource.
Yes, the miners were violent at times. Yes, they had leaders like Arthur Scargill. Arthur Scargill, I’ll grant you, was not a pleasant man. However, I do ask you to consider what you would do when faced with a government that was out to destroy your industry and put you out of work for what I can only understand as political reasons. Furthermore, much of the reporting of the miner’s strike was extensively edited on the BBC, most notably the footage of the Battle of Orgreave in south Yorkshire, a confrontation between the police and the miners. The BBC were leant on to doctor their coverage of Orgreave to suggest that the miners attacked the police. In fact, quite the reverse was the case.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning that Thatcher said to have had hand in the Hillsborough cover up. In the late 1980s, a number of football fans from Liverpool were crushed to death as a result of police mismanagement of the crowds. Naturally, the policemen involved covered their tracks to escape the necessity of taking any responsibility for the Hillsborough Disaster. Recently, we have heard that Thatcher, in a handwritten note, made her views plan that there was no need for anyone involved in causing the deaths of the football fans to resign and that a report on the matter was at fault for containing “devastating criticism of the police.” Thatcher rather liked the police and police power. In the same note she questioned whether any criticism of the police was welcome.
Margaret Thatcher was bad for Britain from a “grown-up libertarian” point of view. But let’s not forget: she did turn us from the Sick Man of Europe into a prosperous and libertarian country; she was a principled classical liberal; and if you believe any of that then you need your head seeing to.