The Greatness of Margaret Thatcher:
An Alternative View
Speech Given to the Property and Freedom Society
Bodrum, 2nd September 2016
When she died in April 2013, the mainstream assumption was that Margaret Thatcher had been something like the kind of person Donald Trump is hoped to be. She had humbled the left. She had brought about fundamental reforms in economic policy. She had made her country strong again and respected in the outer world. This being the assumption, conservatives went into ostentatious mourning, and the leftists rejoiced.
I am aware that one of her personal friends is in this room, and I will say now, for the avoidance of the slightest doubt, that I will speak no ill of her personal character, which appears to have been singularly plain and honest for a British politician. I do not, even so, share the assumption that was general at the time of her death. I will, in the time allowed me, give my settled opinion, which is that, in no sense, was Margaret Thatcher a conservative – let alone a libertarian – hero. Rather, she was, in every sense, the midwife of the leftist police state that is modern Britain.
I begin with her economic policies. When she came to power in 1979, the British Government was running a large budget deficit. This debt was routinely monetised, and the country had known double digit inflation for much of the previous decade. The trade union movement was very strong. It used its strength to demand regular cost of living wage increases for its members, regardless of local circumstances. It also resisted structural changes in manufacturing industry without which wage increases in real terms could not be sustained. Mrs Thatcher’s solution to these problems was disastrous.
You end that kind of inflation by cutting government spending. You shut down a few ministries, and apply real cuts to the salaries of the state employees who remain. She did neither of these things. Instead, she allowed and encouraged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise interest rates to the point where much manufacturing industry found it impossible to borrow. A further effect was a rise in sterling on the foreign exchanges that made our exports uncompetitive. Between 1980 and 1983, about a quarter of British industry disappeared. Unemployment rose past three million, and, bearing in mind all the statistical tricks to hide the true rise, may have gone far beyond that. This unemployment did not come substantially down until the middle of the 1990s, and that fall was largely because many of the long-term unemployed were ageing, and could be moved from unemployment benefit onto their old age pensions.
The effect was to destroy the industrial working class as it had emerged in the nineteenth century. I will try not to romanticise these people. They elected and gave firm support to trade union leaders who resisted all attempts at modernisation, and who were often sympathetic to, or even in the pay of, a hostile foreign power. At the same time, the working classes were our people, and virtually the whole cost of ending the inflation was put on them. The old system of skilled and semi-skilled industrial labour had given dignity to millions of working class people, and both the financial security and general autonomy that allowed them full exercise of the freedoms associated with liberal democracy. At a stroke, they were reduced to the clients of a mean and capricious welfare system, or pushed into menial jobs without security. There was a corresponding rise in divorce, illegitimacy, various kinds of substance abuse, and in political apathy, and in superstition, and in a tendency to witch-hunting hysteria against whoever was described in the media as the monster of the day. This should not have been surprising. It is what always happens when people find that the bottom has dropped out of their world – especially when they know that the authorities have, more or less deliberately, knocked the bottom out of their world.
I appreciate that, in our movement, talk of economic equality is not popular. But, given that we are where we are, and that most actually existing élites owe their positions to less than natural merit, there is a case for avoiding policies that throw large masses of our people into pauperism. Certainly, I spent the first decades of my life in a country where inequality was diminishing, and have spent the rest in a country where it has grown increasingly obvious and accepted. I, for one, know which I preferred.
Who were the beneficiaries of these policies? Not, I tell you, the traditional entrepreneurial class. If the headline rates of income tax were cut – the standard rate from 35% to 25%, the top rates from 98% and 83% to 40% – the overall burden of tax as a percentage of gross domestic product was about the same when Margaret Thatcher left office in November 1990 as when she came in. Hardly anyone had paid the old top rates. A mix of inflation and slower rising thresholds brought many more into the new top rate. If the more obvious regulations were abolished – price controls, for example, and exchange controls – there was a steady growth of other regulations. Tax collection became increasingly rapacious and impenetrable. Health and safety laws became a serious check on business, without making people noticeably more safe or healthy at work. There was an unchecked growth of money laundering laws and, toward the end of the 1980s, of environmental protection laws.
The beneficiaries were workers of all kinds in the state sector, and workers in the service sector – above all those who worked in the City of London after the financial institutions had been transformed into globalised casinos. The problem with the service sector is that, generally speaking, it gives secure and well-paid employment to small minorities at the top. Everyone else is decidedly menial and insecure. I touch again on my point about the undesirability of economic inequality.
But I turn to the state sector. At any time, it would have been unjust to spare this from the costs of ending an evil mostly thrown up by its own growth. But the 1980s were not any time. Mrs Thatcher was always keen on identifying enemies and marking them for destruction. There is a case for this in principle. Her problem was that she consistently identified the wrong enemies. Near the top of her demonology was a group of men who had known the unemployment of the 1930s, and perhaps fought on the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and who thought it would be a fine thing if the supermarkets could be nationalised. These were a nuisance, especially when they also happened to be trade union leaders. But, if a nuisance, they were not an existential threat. There was another group – a much younger and more diverse group – who, because they wore suits and drank mineral water, she regarded as barely a nuisance, but who were an existential threat.
Call these people what you like – the totalitarian humanists, the cultural Marxists, the New Left, the neo-puritans, the Enemy Class: there is still no agreed name for them, though we all recognise them when we see them. As with their name, their fundamental nature remains controversial. Are they disciples of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School? These are the people they read at university, and whose terminology they use. Or are they really the latest manifestation of Anglo-American puritanism? On the one hand, Gramsci and Marcuse had no interest in regulating sex and sexuality, and would have scratched their heads at the War on Smoking. On the other, the people I am discussing have no particular belief in God. There is room for continuing debate on these people. One thing, however, is clear. During the 1980s, they were moving upward in the state sector and in education and all the other sectors funded by the State, and they were growing to dominance in the media. They had no interest in controlling the price of bread, and cared nothing about the white working class. What they wanted was to get inside our heads and to remake us as a people in their own lunatic and evil image. They would do this in the first instance by their control of education and the media. If allowed, they would do it by direct control of the State.
What else is clear is that Mrs Thatcher and her ministers did absolutely nothing to slow their colonisation of the state sector and its associated bodies.
Indeed, they did worse. By 1979, if not so fervently as the Thatcherites, I accept that the trade unions were out of control. The Thatcherite answer, however, was to place the union movement in a legal straitjacket where the older style of trade union official was unable to operate. In consequence, the unions were taken over by university graduates who knew how to make the new system work in their own interests – university graduates, I hardly need add, whose nature and opinions I have already mentioned. Too concerned with her war against Arthur Scargill and his friends – a war in which the traditional working class was collateral damage – she did all but roll out the red carpet for those who later became the friends of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.
Foreigners often wonder how the revolutionary changes made after 1997 by Tony Blair could have been so swift and seemingly irreversible in a country so conservative as England. My answer takes me into a brief digression on the nature of the English Constitution.
For Americans in particular, a constitution is a set of words on paper. Matters of right and wrong in government policy are discussed in terms of how it is legitimised by the explicit wording of a document written in the eighteenth century. This is for me a most alien style of argument, and that is why I find conversation with American conservatives and even libertarians often so tiresome. Properly seen, the constitution of a county emerges from the settled nature of its people. Replace the people, and, obviously, a new constitution will emerge. Over time, the concerns of even a settled people will change in line with new circumstances, and so the constitution will change.
Within this loose framework, radical or ill-considered breaks from what emerged in the past will be prevented, or perhaps slowed, by fixed constitutional rules. This, I grant, justifies much American discussion of exactly what was settled in the 1780s. At the same time, a written constitution is always open to reinterpretation. For example, the first and second sections of the American Bill of Rights appear at present to hang on who nominates the next Judge in the Supreme Court. In America, it is less important who makes the rules than who interprets them.
England has no written constitution. The long stability of our institutions rested instead on a sense of tradition, or an imagined sense of continuity with the distant past. If, in 1980, you had asked the average Englishman to justify trial by jury, his answer might have been that it was a useful check on political justice, and something about the unwisdom of allowing case-hardened judges sitting alone to decide matters of disputed fact. More likely, the justification would have been that trial by jury had existed since at least the thirteenth century – which effectively meant it had existed forever – and that abolishing it would therefore be as unwelcome and outrageous as trying to metricate the clock and the calendar. I suspect this is also the case in America. Once you get behind the verbiage about what such and such a clause of the Constitution says and what it means, you pass to an instinctive belief in not changing what has been long settled. The main difference between our countries is that we avoid the verbiage – and we maintained a free constitution, I will add, for about twice as long as America has existed.
Now the body of customary rules and assumptions and expectations that make – or made – up the English Constitution has no hold on the imagination as a set of individual parts, but as an undifferentiated mass. Everything is connected to everything else, and everything supports everything else. Trial by jury has always existed. So has the English system of weights and measures. So has the wearing of horsehair wigs in court, together with names like “bailiff” and “sheriff” and “plaintiff.” Abolish and make radical changes to any one, and the others are weakened. Make sufficiently radical changes in a short enough time, even to supposedly incidental parts of the constitution, and the fundamental parts may come to be seen as so much clutter from the past, to be cleared away in the supposed interest of fairness of efficiency. The Tory case against constitutional reform in the early nineteenth century can be expressed in one sentence by Lord Eldon: “Touch one atom, and the whole is lost.”
Before about the 1960s, however, constitutional change in Britain was either organic, in the sense that new meanings were, by unspoken consent, attached to ancient forms, or carried through with a decent regard for the unamended remainder. The genius of the Victorian reformers was that they made radical changes to the substance of the Constitution without touching the surface forms; and even the Judicature Acts of the 1870s, which were probably their most fundamental break with the past, were soon absorbed into the perception of an unchanged structure. By 1901, only legal scholars or older lawyers were aware that the courts had ever worked differently.
The Thatcher Government made a century of changes in eleven years. These were carried through with an almost gloating disregard for the proprieties, and were generally to enhance the power of the State. We were given pre-publication censorship for the first time in three hundred years, and a real War on Drugs, and ex-post facto criminal laws, and punishment without conviction or trial, and reversals of the burden of proof in criminal cases. The ancient right to peremptory challenge of jurors was abolished, together with the ancient right of an inquest jury to find a general verdict. The rights to political speech and association were curbed. The agreed rule that police officers were civilians employed and given uniforms to do what everyone else had the right to do was swept aside for the creation of an increasingly armed pro-State militia.
And, talking of militias, it was the Thatcher Government that disarmed us. The Firearms Acts 1920 and 1968 only regulated the right to keep and bear arms. So long as you knew how to fill out the right forms, and what public admissions to avoid, you could have as many guns and as much ammunition as you wanted. The Firearms Act 1988 was our first substantive step to victim disarmament.
I passed my twenties denouncing these changes. I denounced them as bad in themselves, and bad so far as they weakened the cohesion of our ancient constitution. I said they formed precedents for an even more dictatorial future government. I was called a fool and told that the changes were needed to maintain firm and efficient government. Or I was referred to the words of the neo-Marxist Martin Jacques about “a free market in a strong state.” No one paid attention to my reply that there was no free market, and that government was not made observably more efficient.
The volume and speed of change intensified after Mrs Thatcher resigned in 1990, and the Major Government was probably our most authoritarian since the 1680s. In 1997, the Blair Government came in. It found the entire Constitution already broken apart. No work of undermining was needed. This was a government predominantly of the people I have mentioned. It was the work of only three years to clear away the broken mass of our Constitution and create the new order under which we now find ourselves.
In 2001, I had lunch with an old university friend. He complained that the Blair Government was the nearest thing England had ever seen to a Jacobin revolution. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. The Blair Government was Napoleon, creating a new order to replace what had already been destroyed. The Jacobins had been the Thatcher and Major Governments. They had destroyed the ancient constitution. They were the ones who had broken what Walter Bagehot called “the cake of custom.” Every precedent of importance had been set by the Thatcher Government.
When I came out as a libertarian in 1977, I thought it reasonable to support the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. I joined the Party. I took time off my A-Level revision to campaign in the 1979 general election. I hailed the Conservative victory as a new dawn for English liberty. After much head-scratching over the next three years, I had a fresh burst of enthusiasm when the Falklands War began. I spent that war jumping up and down with a Union Flag in each hand. I believed Mrs Thatcher’s libertarian and conservative rhetoric. I was not alone. The millions who voted Conservative in 1979, 1983 and 1987 believed that the country was being saved. I was earlier than most in my disillusion, though not so early as I now feel I should have been. I also took the trouble to write it down at the time. But it is now thirty seven years since Mrs Thatcher became our Prime Minister. That is long enough to see her in perspective. She was no champion of liberty. She was no Ron Paul. Assuming he is what I am assured he is, she was no Donald Trump. She pushed through – or, on the most charitable estimate, she unwittingly fronted – the transformation of our wonderful and beloved England into a sinister foreign country.
At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned her foreign policy. That, however, would be another speech in itself. It is enough to say that, by the time she left office, she had done what every previous British Government since 1945 had carefully tried to avoid. She turned us into an American satrapy. If, before then, it had required American consent, hardly one bullet left the gun of a British soldier by 1990 but on American orders. What she called making Britain strong in the world amounted to nothing more than making us the more efficient servant of a foreign power – and, I would add, a foreign power hostile to our true interests as a nation.
Oh, and no mention of the European Union either – something else she did much to promote, before and after she became Prime Minister.
And so I do not admire Margaret Thatcher. She competes with Tony Blair for the status of our worst peacetime Prime Minister in the century since 1914. For the reasons I have explained, she may have been worse than Tony Blair. I ask you to look through what she promised and then claimed to have delivered. Look through the blast of hot air that attended her death three years ago. Look at what she did. By their fruits ye shall know them, said Christ. She was a corrupt tree bringing forth evil fruit, the bitter taste of which may never leave our mouths.
I think Harold Wilson was maybe the worst Prime Minister since 1945 but Harold MacMillian
was not much better.
Who was the best Prime Minister. I suppose it was Mrs Thatcher. She was both a politician
and an ideologue and her two careers clashed. It was Keith Joseph who discovered liberalism
and called it conservativism, that he said he had found for the first time. Mrs Thatcher backed him
for the Conservative leadership, but after a speech in Birmingham, on the old Darwinian fear
of the masses out-breeding the elite, he found he could not face the media criticism, so he
told Mrs Thatcher to take over and she did. They both remained Tories but were in love with
liberalism for the rest of their lives.
As a propagandist, Mrs Thatcher served pristine liberalism very well. Her acme was maybe the
privatisation of water, that most thought, habitually, was cost free; but that never was such
in fact. People were thinking along the lines of the Fabian Society paradigm of ever more state, that was not only held by the Labourites, but also by the me-too Tories, that were soon to be called “Wets”, and this idea was completely destroyed by Mrs Thatcher as a propagandist.
As a politician, Mrs Thatcher was more ordinary and pragmatic, and I do not have much
to say about that. Picking enemies is alien to liberalism and to the Enlightenment
outlook but, as Sean says above, she rather liked doing that. It was what she said
that was liberal but then only in propaganda, not as part of her speech in her political deeds.
Sean seems to think in unreal terms like “class”. He is not alone, of course, for most in
the colleges are equally backward. But Marx was as unrealistic as St Augustine and the
economic interest of those he called the proletariat was bas unreal as his soul was.Yet
Marx was quite right that only this supposed economic interest mattered, not what people
thought, including what Marx said he thought. Thought needs to relate to reality. Marx’s never did.
Why Sean thinks totalitarian democracy or Political Correctness is leftist is not clear.
The left of the French Assembly was largely for free trade and the right for protectionism
but when socialism, as old Tory meme, was revived, the Fabians said it was to the left of
liberalism, and the left/right dichotomy has been rather confused ever since, for what they said was generally accepted, but the dichotomy leads to the fallacy of ad hominem anyway, which we fall into whenever we object to the man rather than addressing his case; but to attack the man in the wake of answering the points he made is no fallacy; the fallacy is only in changing the subject.
Sean’s whole idea of the working class is Romantic, and anti-Enlightenment, holding that
economic interests matter more than reason does. But reasoning tells us there never was
a working class with a common class interest. But, on the idea that there must be one,
Robert Owen saw that the Trade Unions were anti-working class in the 1830s. Marx’s
defence against the Owenite, Western, of 1865 was hopeless, and it only worked as nearly
all who read it had no idea of the theory Marx was attacking, and Marx was not brave
enough to give his audience/readers an account of the Owenite case to begin with, but
we can sum it up here by noting that those they called blacklegs or scabs were not
managers or owners, but wage workers. The unions were against the working class for
sectional trade interests of keeping the supply of workers in short supply, as a way
of being paid higher wages, but the market process of other workers moving in to share
the higher wages was cut off forcefully by the unions.
Economic equality never was popular outside the schools and the colleges. It always
was accepted elsewhere.
The entrepreneurs are innovators, thus not ever traditional.
The nebulous “class” Sean seems to be on about is just the voters and the ideological democrats. The ideology that gives rise to Political Correctness [PC] is just democracy. But it imagines
an ideal voter rather than voters as they are, and it uses the political elite to crowd
out popular anti-PC ideas that it considers to be bigoted. Oddly, most voters have voted
for those elites, but in the last few years, with the rise of the UKIP, they have begun to
revolt. The UKIP are, in fact, nearer to the elite than most voters but the media
journalists and many MPs fear otherwise.
Mrs Thatcher was a grand democrat herself and she saw it as the solution to many problems.
That is why she never opposed the riding tide of PC. Her Community Charge [Poll Tax, as the opponents called it] was a quest to revive local democracy. She wanted democracy in the unions too. So she would not oppose democracy as an ideology. Of course PC wants to do all things by direct state control.
But note that most people never were democrats. Like Burke, they preferred the division
of labour and hoped that the politicians and the clergy knew what they were about, as it
was clearly boring the average person stiff in any case. They expected the state to remain
marginal to everyday life.
The UK was keen to greatly diminish the Royal Navy in 1923 to become a satrapy of the USA
and the whole Bretton Woods Conference with Keynes working for the British state in the 1940s seemed to also have that aim. Indeed, one journalist asked Keynes as he got off the plane from the USA if the UK had become a member of the United States and Keynes replied “Not yet!”
Thatcher was a disaster. Thank goodness Harold Wilson had the courage to say no to my generation getting seriously involved in Vietnam, I doubt if Thatcher would have done the same.
Thank you – I enjoyed reading your comments.
Just on one point for now, I think the idea of the working class as having a common economic interest relates to the social relationship to capital of each major economic group in society. The working class (or proletariat) are non-owners and encompass not just the manual labouring classes but also the salaried middle-classes.
These are economically distinct from the capitalists, who own capitalist, and the petite bourgeoisie, the autonomous part of the middle-class who own small amounts of capital and are self-employed.
Marx was deploying reason in making these distinctions.
Are there any specific pieces of work re: Owen and his views on unions?
Owen produced many little pamphlets that I had access to in Birmingham Reference Library in the 1960s and 1970s but I have forgotten all the titles now. He reproduced his argument that the Trade Unions are against the workers not the firms many times.
W.H. Hutt gives an account of Owen’s argument and he openly agrees with it.
Thanks. Hutt is on my reading list.
A Hutt title that cites the Owen argument is the IEA booklet _The Theory of Collective Bargaining.
You forgot she pushed the whole global warming circus too. Thatcher was a disaster, she said one thing then went ahead and did the exact opposite. May she rot in the deepest pit of Hell. David Davis is phoning in from some kind of bizarre alternate universe.
Sorry I meant MacDonagh
I see no actual criticism of what I said to reply to here.
The fact that Mrs Thatcher boosted the Green paradigm is not even germane to anything I said.
@McDonagh, your screed had nothing to with SIG’s for sure since SIG explained with examples and all you did was make bunch of assertions about what you imagined Thatcher believed. Judging by what she actually did rather than what she said in her speeches she didn’t believe a word of what she said in public.
If she was indeed a democrat that’s enough to condemn her in my eyes. Democracy sucks and it’s certainly not what libertarianism is about.
Again, whatever Mrs Thatcher believed is not even germane to anything I said.
Excellent essay. There is so much I would like to comment on, but alas I do not have the time at the moment.
All I will say at this point is that, Dr. Gabb’s criticism of the Major government makes me personally feel a little better as I have been feeling guilty at my involvement with the Left and Labour during the relevant period in the 1990s. We often forget why Labour were widely supported at that time. The Major government was terrible.
Dr. Gabb’s admission of wide-eyed enthusiasm for Thatcher and her Falklands campaign also makes me feel a little bit better – it’s confirmation that even the most intelligent people can make political mistakes.
Yes, Charles, Harold Wilson had the merit of keeping the UK out of Vietnam and that was very good. You might well be right that Mrs Thatcher might not have kept us out of that.
But he messed up the cleared labour market with his silly selective employment tax and there is still over a million out of work today. That is why he is about the worst. A lot of people have lost confidence owing to that and there have been many suicides. The fact that there is no need for any such unemployment since 1970 is very clear and demonstrated by illegal immigration finding jobs in the black economy ever since then. We get the mass unemployment that we pay for.
Yes, Tom, Marx was using reason in looking at the three factors of production to see if they had clashing economic interests but he was silly to go on with his sheer Romance, that he boldly called science, that there was such interests when it was clear enough that there was nothing like such clashing interests. There has been conflict in the past but not related to the classical economic factors of production. The harmony of interests that those who Marx called the vulgar economists was correct but Marx rejected it for poor reasons. He had not only the check to call himself scientific but also to call Owen utopian. His idea, the essence of the Romantic outlook, was that Owen over rated reason. Owen erred but Marx did not correct his error but rather he obfuscated the errors. But class has long since been over rated by all sorts of people. Owen and Marx [who agreed on class — Marx adopted many of Owen’s ideas via Engels] and the sheer Romance continues. But it has no factual basis.
I apologise for the errors.
I meant to say that Marx had the cheek [rather than check] to call himself scientific and that both Owen and Marx erred on class but many still agree with them today. They were both gainsaid, many times, during their lives but they both failed to see the clear enough facts [or at least they did not admit it; did Marx really misunderstand Owen on Trade Unions?].
Sean, this is great, and I’ve love to hear the audio too!
Getting ready to come home from Turkey. Poor connection out here, so video later in week.
I have a question about the Falklands — in the past you have said “The one war [Thatcher] fought that might have some justification was only necessary because her own colleagues had effectively told the Argentine government to invade the Falkland Islands.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-iron-lady-who-ushered-in-a-new-age-in-britain-8564862.html). Can you please elaborate, or suggest some sources? Thank you!
He was probably referring to the planned withdrawal of HMS Endurance.
[…] Listen here. […]
Good stuff well-expressed. But I think we’re only in the early stages of a “leftist police state”. CFI / LFI might not like Corbyn’s crew, but all three of them want a proper police state. They just differ on who should be in control.
Call these people what you like – the totalitarian humanists, the cultural Marxists, the New Left, the neo-puritans, the Enemy Class: there is still no agreed name for them, though we all recognise them when we see them. […] On the other, the people I am discussing have no particular belief in God. There is room for continuing debate on these people.
Only if the debate is kept at a decent level and does not descend into conspiracy-theorizing and scapegoating. This is why I was so shocked and disturbed to see you associating yourself with Paul Gottfried. He undoubtedly descended into the ideological sewer when he made those appalling allegations about which (((group))) most opposes free speech in the US.
I will, in the time allowed me, give my settled opinion, which is that, in no sense, was Margaret Thatcher a conservative – let alone a libertarian – hero. Rather, she was, in every sense, the midwife of the leftist police state that is modern Britain.
Hear, hear. When I point out to Thatchophile Blairophobes that she perfected all the techniques later used to great effect by him — presidential style of government, contempt for the cabinet, enthralment to (and control by) big business, blending politics with show-biz-and-advertising, employment of a thuggish press secretary, etc — they really don’t like it.
But let’s not forget the positive side to Maggie and Tony: both were unshakable friends of the Jewish Community and devoted considerable time and effort to maintaining the closest of relationships with the most loyal and assimilated group in Britain’s vibrant multicultural tapestry. Cynics might suggest that all this was because the Community managed, from time to time, to scrape a few pennies together for Maggie and Tony, but I prefer to think that passionate advocates of liberty, democracy and free speech always recognize that the Community are an essential ally in the fight for Western civilization.
My irony meter was humming along nicely throughout your comment, but for some reason it exploded at the end of the last paragraph. Can’t understand it.
My irony meter was humming along nicely throughout your comment, but for some reason it exploded at the end of the last paragraph. Can’t understand it.
Modern technology can betray the best of us, as Peter Simple describes here: