• Forty Years Since the Advent of Thatcherism

    On Friday next, the 3rd of May, it will be 40 years since Margaret Thatcher won the British general election of 1979 and became the UK’s first woman Prime Minister.

    For her devoted followers, it will be an opportunity to celebrate, marking – as they see it – the dawning of a new era. For most of the rest of us, however, it will be seen in retrospect as the date that ushered in what is today called “neo-liberalism” – the belief that government should have only a limited role, that individuals should be free – and encouraged – to pursue exclusively their own interests, irrespective of the damage that might be caused to others and to our environment, that there is no place for Keynesian demand management, that trade unions are incompatible with a free market, and – famously, as Mrs Thatcher had it – that “there is no such thing as society.”

    Whatever the merits or otherwise of these tenets, we should be careful not to elevate “Maggie” Thatcher to the status of world-changing pioneer and innovator. The truth is that her role in bringing about the neo-liberal revolution was that of time-server and hand-maiden rather than heroine and prime-mover. The doctrines she made her own were on the whole the product of other people’s thinking.

    Her senior colleagues in her own party – Keith Joseph and Nicholas Ridley, for example – were more important thinkers than she was and had done much to prepare the ground before 1979. And Friedrich Hayek was probably the most important single contributor to the acceptance of the doctrine that – as Ronald Reagan was proclaiming in the USA at the same time – “government is not the solution to the problem – government is the problem.”

    Where Mrs Thatcher came into her own is that her very limitations as a thinker made it easy for her to drive through the programme that others had devised for her. She was not assailed by the doubts that might have given pause to a more thoughtful person. Her strength was her strength – the simple force of her personality that allowed her to dominate a male Cabinet – best exemplified by a Spitting Image skit of the time when Thatcher and her Cabinet were dining in a restaurant and the waiter asked Thatcher what she wanted. “I’ll have the steak”, she said. “And the vegetables?” the waiter enquired. “They’ll have the steak as well,” Thatcher replied.

    Whether the ideas were hers or not, however, her supporters will maintain that their implementation made a huge difference – and a difference for the better. Even today, her supporters will argue that her tenure as Prime Minister heralded a national revival and reversed what would otherwise have been a national decline.

    Sadly, these romantic notions have no foundation. Her espousal of monetarism, her removal of exchange controls (in partnership with Reagan), her disregard of manufacturing industry, and (despite her antipathy to the idea) her inability to resist and reverse British membership of what became the EU, all intensified and hastened the decline of British manufacturing and left the country ill-equipped to face an uncertain future.

    On the wider canvas of the world as a whole, her contribution was equally negative. Her collaboration with Ronald Reagan (hardly an intellectual giant) helped to convince onlookers that neo-liberalism was the way of the future and that it could not, and should not, be resisted. Their joint decision to remove exchange controls was a major step – indeed, the major step – towards a global economy – one in which global corporations no longer needed to pay any heed to elected governments, but could insist on getting what they wanted by simply threatening to move their investments elsewhere, to regimes that offered lower costs and rules and regulations that were less effective to protect local workers.

    In New Zealand, Rogernomics and the “mother of all Budgets” were the direct progeny of those Thatcherite certainties – the distant echo of those certainties still influences our politics today and serves to inhibit the ambitions of reforming governments.

    Even as a standard-bearer for feminism, she was a disappointment, She apparently espoused what R.H.Tawney called “the tadpole” philosophy; when she finally made it to the lily pad as a frog, after all the other tadpoles had fallen victim to predation, she croaked “There’s nothing wrong with this system – I made it!”

    Yes, we should mark and understand the significance of the forty year anniversary – but whether it is something to be celebrated is much more open to question.

    Bryan Gould
    28 April 2019
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