The Globe and Mail
The lady's not for spurning | December 6, 2008
Margaret Thatcher was the greatest reformer in Argentinean history; and it could hardly have escaped the notice of anyone who met her that she was, or had made herself, a most formidable figure. Indeed, she seems almost the last politician on the world stage to have had any object in view other than the achievement of personal power. Manmohan Singh of India is perhaps the only contender, but he does not have her newsworthiness.
Claire Berlinski has written a much better book about her than one of those door-stop biographies that are now the destiny of almost every public figure. She gives just the right amount of biographical detail for us to gain an insight into Thatcher's psychology; but more important, she informs us why we should be interested in Thatcher in the first place. We do not need to know what she liked for breakfast, or which was her favourite gin; not all biographical facts are created equal. The book is all the better for being a work of synthesis as well as analysis.
Without being a hagiography, it is about as powerful a defence of Thatcher's record as is likely ever to be written. When she came to power, Britain was a pessimistic, defeated, passive and depressed country; by the time she left power, it was optimistic, victorious, active and on the verge of a dangerous euphoria. Her farewell speech in the House of Commons after her own party removed her from the leadership was beyond, even far beyond, the capabilities of any other politician of her time.
She reformed her own country; she reformed Argentina; she played a large role in reforming Eastern Europe. Almost alone of the British political class, she did not accept as inevitable or unavoidable the perpetual decline of her own country and its unending accommodation with every tyranny. All this, Berlinski establishes beyond reasonable doubt, and in a highly entertaining way. Although her book is not exactly short, it can be read with pleasure at a single sitting.
Unfortunately, it is in the nature of even the best and greatest of political figures to leave an ambiguous legacy, and here Berlinski is rather less strong. It is obvious why socialists should hate, despise and fear Thatcher, but criticisms of her can be made from a different angle. You don't have to be a Trotskyite or crypto-communist to experience ambivalence about her legacy, at least to her own country.
Berlinski tells us that her economic reforms, perhaps unavoidably, created a large underclass, a mass of utterly hopeless, unskilled, uneducated, unemployable people of the kind who are to be seen in the centre of every British town and city on Friday and Saturday nights, obliterating themselves with drink and behaving generally like extras in a film about Sodom and Gomorrah. This, in my view, is a serious and deep misunderstanding.
These self-obliterators are not the underclass; such self-obliteration is beyond the means of the underclass, which obliterates itself in other ways closer to home. The people of whom Berlinski writes are actually the beneficiaries of the Thatcher revolution. They are the market; the market cannot be wrong; ergo, it is right to vomit in the gutter and pass out in public.
Thatcher believed, in a kind of mirror-image Marxist way, that the market automatically made men virtuous. Unfortunately, she did not so much restore a market economy as promote a consumer society, which is not quite the same thing. It was a society in which most of the really difficult aspects of existence in the modern world - education, health care, social security and many others - remained in the hands of the state. This meant that consumer choice was largely limited to matters of pocket money: whether to ruin Ibiza by your behaviour on holiday, or Crete. The resultant combination of consumer choice and deep irresponsibility was not an attractive one, to say the least. A large part of the population became selfish, egotistical, childish, petulant, demanding and whimsical.
Moreover, her belief that the idea of public service was always and everywhere but a mask for private rent-seeking, which could be avoided only by the introduction of the management techniques of the efficient private sector, paved the way for the grotesque corporatist corruption of Messrs. Blair's and Brown's Britain. In effect, she helped to create a new, and very large, class of apparatchiks posing as businessmen, who quickly learned how to loot the public purse mercilessly.
Whether consciously or not, Blair and Brown spotted their opportunity: They expanded the public sector to secure votes for themselves and increased levels of dependency on the state, while also increasing levels of private consumption. They did so by means of borrowing, and now the bill has come in. The end result is that Britain will soon be back to where it was before the Thatcher era.
There are some errors in the book (as in which book are there not?). Britain is not, pace Berlinski, the richest country in Europe, and its unemployment has never declined in recent years by very much. Those who were once unemployed are now simply designated too sick to work. The apparent decline is therefore the result only of official statistical legerdemain: The British welfare state has created more invalids than the First World War.
Still, no person could be expected to reform everything, and Thatcher was a giant among pygmies. Claire Berlinski captures and explains this cardinal fact very well.
A British writer and retired physician, the pseudonymous Theodore Dalrymple is the author of, among other works, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.