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The death of Margaret Thatcher, and the legacy of ‘Thatcherism’

Late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher leaves a lasting legacy through her ‘Thatcherism’ policies she instituted during her premiership. EPA/Gerry Penny

On the eve of her resignation as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher pondered her options. In a little over 36 hours time it seemed likely the parliamentary Conservative party would again refuse the wholehearted support she required to remain in office.

In those crucial hours she sought the advice of numerous colleagues. One such meeting was particularly telling. It took place with Thatcher’s “gallant friend” Alan Clark. “Fight right to the end,” he urged her. “You lose…but what a way to go! Unbeaten in three [general] elections, never rejected by the people. Brought down by nonentities!” “Your place in history,” Clark assured her, “is towering”. The death of Margaret Thatcher allows us to begin assessing what that “place” might be.

It has become academically unfashionable to pursue a “great man thesis” of history. Such endeavours have been replaced by the colder logic of social-scientific enquiry with its emphasis on demographics, econometrics and historical determinism.

The career of Margaret Thatcher offers a refutation of such an approach. In that career, the scholar is presented with a striking account of the force of character in human affairs. Few leaders of her generation were credited with an ideology – “Thatcherism”. Mikhail Gorbachev may claim copyright of glasnost or perestroika, but neither concept embraces something so fundamentally personal as Thatcherism. “Gillardism”? Unlikely.

Even the powerful impact of Ronald Reagan failed to become embodied in a concept linked inextricably with him. “Reaganomics”, unlike Thatcherism, suggests a narrowly economic approach rather than an all-embracing ideology. Defining Thatcherism thus means understanding Margaret Thatcher.

The assessment of a personality is a complex task. Few people display a linear development of thought and approach. But this complexity need not preclude the drawing of patterns. In the case of Margaret Thatcher we are able to discern a consistency of statesmanship in her political actions. From these actions – and Thatcher’s explanation of them – can be constructed the essential principles of Thatcherism.

Thatcherism is an expression of moral force in politics. This is its creator’s most fundamental contribution to modern politics. At its core is the notion of right and wrong. Thatcherism does not embody a scale of options which the statesman may pick and chose. Rather, it urges resolve and fortitude. This is exampled in two distinct manifestations of Thatcherism: economic policy and diplomacy.

The Thatcher Revolution was economic in method: “the object,” said Margaret Thatcher, “was to change the soul”. Again, the personal orientation of Thatcher herself is important here. Her memoirs are a constant call for the sound economics of the corner store, and the “sober virtues cultivated and esteemed in that environment”.

Her childhood was an economic education of the profoundest kind; it taught the young Margaret that the pursuit of prosperity was a disciplined and, above all, a moral endeavour. Wealth can easily be the product of corruption, so wealth at any and all cost has no place in the Thatcherite model of the good society. Prosperity, under Thatcherism, is an expression of the moral worth and ethical strength of a nation. Unbridled capitalism is thus the antithesis of the moral discipline of Thatcherism.

Rather than alienating each man from his neighbour (as Marx predicted), capitalism for Thatcher was “a lively, human social and sociable reality”. It went hand-in-hand with religiosity (Methodism in Thatcher’s case) and communal obligation. “There is no such thing as society,” she said in 1987. This brief sentence is often quoted by Thatcher’s opponents as if it were an expression of an essential heartlessness in her approach to politics and social policy. However, to quote these words out of context is to distort their true meaning. What should be added is her following rider:

There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.

This is a call for individual responsibility. It is little wonder that Americans overwhelmingly admire her since she seemed to express and embody the twin principles of democracy and freedom which lie at the heart of the US constitution.

Thatcher’s conception of liberty is very much in the tradition of 19th century liberalism, which is to say that the state exists primarily to create the conditions in which the individual may exercise his or her individual rights. The state is never a substitute for personal, moral action. The antithesis of Thatcherism to socialism may thus be said to spring from an impulse which is universal: the right to pursue one’s own legitimate (and by implication, moral) interests without interference from officialdom and bureaucracy.

Can then a nation build a society upon these fundamental tenets? Is Thatcherism capable of application outside the West? Indeed, does its destiny begin and end in the Anglo-American world, Britain its home, the United States its great admirer?

Margaret Thatcher did not believe so. Her memoirs expound what she sees as the enduring global legacy of Thatcherism. The tabulation of measures is never so precise as to form a universal political program (Thatcher had a profound detestation for dogmas), for her capitalism was “familiar and creative” rather than harsh and rigid, but all reactions against an over-collectivised economy have certain objectives in common: “keeping down inflation and taxation, curbing public spending, cutting back regulations, promoting competition and avoiding protectionism”.

Of course, such broad prescriptions are not embodied in Thatcherism exclusively. Margaret Thatcher’s great economist-heroes – men such as Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman – all argued for the measures Thatcher pursued as prime minister.

An important caveat is necessary here. It is one which introduces the second important strand – alongside economic policy – of Thatcherism, that of diplomacy. Thatcherism, though it values individual endeavour and frowns upon state-intervention, does not seek the withering of nationhood.

The passing of Margaret Thatcher has sparked widespread debate about her legacy in Britain and abroad. EPA/Andy Rain

For Margaret Thatcher any international organisation – the European Union, the United Nations, NATO – was the sum-total of the separate nations that compose it. While legal traditions between nations vary, morality is constant. The rule of law in the international arena thus becomes a fundamental expression of morality upon which notions of legality are founded.

While there exist both good and bad laws, morality is a constant; conduct is either right or wrong. Thatcher’s appreciation of this dichotomy led to her understanding of the world in essentially moral terms. “Sovereignty”, she wrote, “has strong legal foundations” which means, given the synonymous relationship of law and morality, that the “illegal” denial of sovereignty, for example, constitutes an “immoral” act. Such reasoning made the British reclamation of the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982 a moral duty.

The implication of this “world-view” might be to suggest a rigidity in Margaret Thatcher’s diplomacy. Certainly, her stand against the Soviet Union was strong and principled but never to the point of blindness. Famously, she described Mikhail Gorbachev as a man with whom she “could do business”.

This suggests a pragmatic element within Thatcherism. It would be strange indeed for an ideology that calls for a fresh and vital approach to stale and conventional thinking to refuse change when it emerges. Thatcherism is a cautiously optimistic ideology. It warns of dangers but does not pass-up opportunities. Again, the Gorbachev phenomenon is illustrative in this regard. Thatcher urged her western allies to treat the Soviet leader with “realism and strength…we shall reach our judgments not on words, not on intentions, not on promises, but on actions and results”.

Likewise, pragmatic assessments need not preclude moral conclusions. When Margaret Thatcher consented to the American air-strike against Libya in 1986 – an action finally brought to a conclusion by Barack Obama in 2011 – she did so after considerable calculation as to how the West’s moral case against Gaddafi would be furthered.

Can Thatcherism exist without the unique moral leadership Thatcher offered Great Britain? This is perhaps the greatest test of her legacy. Thatcherism is not about quick profits; it decries the arrogance of wealth; it facilitates prosperity but bids that it be responsibly channelled by the individual lest it be expropriated by the state.

Margaret Thatcher herself would never assert that Thatcherism, however defined, holds the key to human happiness. Only the failed dogmas of the left dared to claim so much. But for a people animated by the morality of the market – its need for discipline and self-sacrifice – Thatcherism offers a sure guide. Her experiment on a little island may yet still engulf the world.

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