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Thatcher's Malign Long-Lasting Legacy

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Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,
(Image by Socialist Party)
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Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, by Socialist Party

When we see the massive police presence for Margaret Thatcher's funeral on Wednesday, 17th April, when we see the permanent ongoing high security that will be necessary for her tomb in Royal Chelsea Hospital, we will be seeing graphically what Thatcher was about -- division and conflict. She is admired by some for her strength of will. For others she was an unyielding, headstrong fanatic. Even her own party and close colleagues could not stomach her in the end and plotted her assassination as party leader and ignominiously dumped her. They knew they had to do the job before the British voters got hold of her.

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For many years now mainstream politicians have never discussed what Thatcher actually did in power. She has become a subject of myth making. All the recent tributes to her are made in vague terms referring to conviction and determination. It is just about myth building. As a populist she would have understood and approved of this.

I will discuss here not the myth of Thatcher but her actions when in power, but, in order to understand what Thatcher and her long reign as Prime Minister were about, you must begin by understanding three essential points about her that mark her out from other politicians, especially those of her day.

Populist

First, she was a populist. She never saw fellow politicians, the civil service, intermediate levels of government like the local authorities or any outside professional groups, as allies. In short she detested the civil society. She did not see herself as a leader working through the governmental and democratic channels or cooperating with colleagues. Her method was to jump over all their heads and appeal directly to popular opinion. Like all populist politicians she believed she had a direct line to the 'will of the people' and so democratic institutions were only a necessary nuisance to be exploited for grander purposes. Of course, it only ever worked with a minority and even then only temporarily. Her populist approach explains why she ended her political life in isolation from her political colleagues.

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Ideologue

Second. Margaret Thatcher was the first Prime Minister to introduce ideology into the British political landscape. What exactly is ideology? An ideology is a set of ideas or beliefs that are adopted by a group of people, which then serve to separate that group from everyone else. The ideology functions not as a position from which discussion with others can take place but as a weapon to defeat those who do not subscribe to it. Of course, Britain had seen ideologues before, on the left and on the right, but never near the pinnacles of power. With ideologies always goes "political hygienism" and I mean by this that those subscribing to the ideology believe the world would be a better place if everybody thought like them.


Selling off nation's windfalls

Third, she only maintained power by virtue of two massive one-off bonanzas that fell into her lap. These enabled the government she ran, with all its misguided and treacherous policies, to maintain some normality and prevent the whole economy collapsing. These bonanzas were created (1) by North Sea oil which begun to create serious tax revenues at the start of her reign and (2) the selling off of publicly owned industries, mostly at knock-down prices. Any reasonable leader would have seen these as national treasures that should be used to create long-term benefits for the country -- but not Thatcher. She shamelessly used the windfalls for shoring up tax receipts as she destroyed large parts of the economy, for paying out massive amounts on unemployment benefits and for politicking to help her win another term. We have never recovered from these the loss of these precious resources that belonged to the nation.

 

Of course, this is fundamentally undemocratic but as I have said Thatcher was a populist not a democrat. She sought to bypass the machinery of state to gain support. She saw no virtue in a pluralist society and was dismissive of opponents. She wanted everyone to agree with her and adopt her agenda and was prepared to use social engineering in pursuit of this aim. Before Thatcher, Britain could make some claim to believing in consensus politics and this went across the political spectrum. She ended that for good. If you want to understand why the word "divisive" is applied to her so often, the explanation is in the fact that she was an unrestrained ideologue.

There are those right now who think we should celebrate Thatcher's death popping champagne corks in street parties and sending Judy Garland's The Wicked Witch is Dead to number one in the iTunes charts, as it is at the time of writing. Overlooking the tasteless aspects of these gestures such people are missing the point. She is far from dead. Thatcher herself may be gone but Thatcherism lives on with full force. This is why I want in this newsletter (and the next) to catalogue the policies that directly sprung from her person during the 80s. I want to insist that a full assessment is necessary because almost all of her policies bear directly on the state we are in now.

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I am going to start with the biggest disaster she created and the one that impacts the most strongly on the economics and politics of today and will do so for many years ahead. I underline that this is the biggest -- but that is not to say all the rest are not also big.

 

1. Thatcherite Economics. Libertarianism 

The ideology that Thatcher signed up to was libertarianism of the type put forward by the Austrian school of economics. The greatest figure in this school was Ludwig Mises who formulated its main principles whilst his pupil Hayek became a propagandist for Austrian thinking in the west, first in Britain and then in the USA. Hayek was a lightweight compared with Mises but he was more successful as a populiser than Mises and wrote a best seller The Road to Serfdom in which he outlined his theory that the welfare state would automatically lead to dictatorship. (The nonsense of this theory is evident when you look at those states where the welfare state is greatest such as Sweden and France, and then ask yourself if these countries are dictatorships.) Also he unexpectedly received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976 (although he had to share it) and this brought him into the public eye. It was through Hayek's teaching the Thatcher came to know about Austrian economics.

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