THE PARADOX OF MARGARET THATCHER
The news that Margaret Thatcher passed away earlier today provokes a mix of feelings. Few other leaders in British history have left a legacy as powerful or paradoxical. Hailed as a national saviour by many for rescuing the country from the malaise and strife of the seventies, she dismantled the post-war consensus and established a new centre of political gravity from which even her opponents were ultimately unable to escape. But she also left office deeply unpopular, a byword for dogmatism and divisiveness that her heirs and successors have struggled to cope with.
That paradox has not only inhibited the Conservative Party in its faltering attempts to modernise and break free of its “nasty party” image. It has perhaps been even more vividly demonstrated in the reaction of its Labour opponents. Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were eager to identify themselves with the Thatcherite legacy one minute while using it as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives the next. The fact that both tactics could be equally effective shows that the country as a whole has never fully resolved its attitude to one of its most remarkable Prime Ministers.
Part of the reason is that Thatcher’s legacy reveals an extraordinary mismatch between myth and reality. She was the small state Conservative who presided over a large increase in public spending; she was the Hammer of Brussels who took the greatest integrationist leap by pushing through the European single market; she was the apostle of freedom who passed section 28, banned trade unions at GCHQ and dismissed Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.
Take the welfare debate today, for example. If the national benefits bill has soared to £200bn it is due in no small measure to the fact that large parts of Britain have never recovered from having the industrial heart ripped out of them in the eighties. For all her faith in the invisible hand of the unfettered market, the private sector never replaced those jobs, either in quantity or quality. Our over-dependence on a mix of high finance and low pay, which New Labour felt unable to change in bondage to the Thatcherite settlement, left us hopelessly exposed when the global economic crisis struck in 2008. The deficit is as much a part of her legacy as the fact that the Union Jack still flies over Port Stanley.
This is the real paradox at the heart of Thatcherism. Free markets do not mean a small state, as Conservatives like to pretend. They mean a bloated, bureaucratic, nannying state that is forced to make increasingly complex and expensive interventions in order to pick up the pieces of a capitalism that fails to create and spread wealth in the way that Conservatives insist it would if only it was left to its own devices. They end with the absurdity of what George Monbiot has dubbed the “capitalist command economy”, with Ministers attempting to impose freedom from Whitehall using bureaucratic decrees, rigged markets and public subsidies. People don’t behave in the way that free market theory says they should, so they must be forced to be free.
Pointing out the contradictions and failures of Thatcher’s record is easy and comforting for the left. The hard part is to acknowledge her political genius and accept that there is an awful lot to learn from her example. One is the power of ideas as the driving force of politics. While colleagues were content to work within the boundaries of the post-war consensus as they had come to understand it, she had the vision to imagine a different possibility and willpower to bring it about. Some called her a conviction politician, others an ideologue. Whatever she was, it was that quality that enabled her to press ahead when everyone else said she was wrong and doomed to fail.
I’m sure I won’t be the last in the coming days to point out that Britain today looks a lot like the Britain of the mid-seventies; beset by economic crisis and a mood of decline, uncertainty, disillusionment and political fragmentation. Margaret Thatcher turned crisis into opportunity with a clarity and determination that deserves respect. I may have hated what she did, but I couldn’t help admiring the way she did it.