Why Thatcher’s Legacy Must Not Be Abandoned
The First Post | December 5, 2008
Margaret Thatcher was always a heroine of mine, from the moment she won the 1979 election, to howls of anguish round all the televisions in the BBC current affairs department where I was then working.
To me Thatcher meant freedom - freedom from the strangehold of the print unions, which had prevented me getting work as a journalist with their archaic protectionism, freedom from union pressure to go out on ludicrous strikes, freedom from the bullying political orthodoxy which had brought us to the 'winter of discontent', and freedom from the fear of speaking openly about one's political views.
People too young to remember that time can have no understanding of the social and political repressiveness of the left-liberal intellectual establishment. It was hateful, and in routing it, Thatcher did leave a wonderful legacy, and one that has, at least so far, survived: people on the right of centre do feel able to talk openly, pretty much, without being denounced as fascists or philistines.
Thatcher proved that the stifling, incompetent hand of socialism could be wrenched from the throat of the body politic, and people all over the world took note. And in due course the Soviet empire collapsed, and the Berlin Wall came down. That is part of Thatcher's legacy, but socialism remains undead; it is crawling out of the sacrophagus right now.
Events can suddenly overtake books, as well as politicians' careers and global economies. It is very unfortunate for the writer Claire Belinski that her new book There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters (Perseus Books £16.99) was published in this particularly eventful year; these days even the book's title must seem pretty much irrelevant, even to Thatcher's most loyal admirers.
Rightly or wrongly, the Thatcherite free market revolution has in many people's minds been discredited; the Thatcherites' victories against socialism are beginning now to look rather more like short–lived skirmishes, and for better or worse there is indeed an alternative, which is now being imposed on us, without much protest even from distinguished Thatcherites.
The unlucky author is writing a critique of a Britain that has already disappeared. She refers frequently to this country's economic success in the present tense: discussing the achievements of Thatcherite monetarism, and the winning of that debate, she writes that "rates of both inflation and unemployment in Britain are now very low".
Then, asking whether Thatcher's "intransigent adherence" to monetarism was a) responsible for this, b) insanity, or c) uncanny intuition coupled to the triumph of the will, she replies in her folksy, journalistic style, "To be honest, I'm not sure. I think the jury is still out".
Not much help there then, especially as the jury now has a great deal of new evidence to consider. But Berlinski does make the important point, even more valid now perhaps than when she wrote it, that Thatcher "matters now because her battles are not over". And it is indeed worth thinking about her battles - her legacy - for better or for worse.
One legacy, which is probably irreversible, is what Thatcher did for women and girls. That a woman - a grocer's daughter - could rise to be Prime Minister, and could be so redoubtable, so courageous against the regiments of lesser men against her, so intelligent, determined, disciplined, articulate and elegant, was an object lesson that no female could fail to understand.
Girls of my daughter's age assume unthinkingly, post-Thatcher, that women can do anything; in my girlhood they usually didn't and couldn't. That matters, and not only in this country. Thatcher was a global role model, even to those who loathe her policies.
Looking back though, even as a great admirer, I am saddened by how superficial the Thatcher effect has proved to be. Her main aim through her economic policies, as Berlinski points out, was not just an efficient economy but a moral, responsible society. Those who titter at the very idea, or use the famous misquotation about "no such thing as society" are simply ignorant of what she thought, often wilfully so.
She did stand for moral dealings and social responsibility, through thrift, hard work and personal success. But quite aside from her economic legacy, her moral and social one has been much less than her glory days promised.
Thatcher (and her people) took on the coal miners and the print unions, it is true, and the Conservatives' hospital reforms were so sensible that New Labour, having unpicked them all, has solemnly knitted them all back together again at last. But with education, she was little short of disastrous.
She failed entirely to deal with the teaching unions, which has proved a national disaster, since Labour would clearly never do so; she failed for instance, for all her centralised powers, to force schools to adopt setting and streaming, and the senseless imposition of targets and box ticking on schools was partly her doing. Thatcher also managed to antagonise the universities; they were right to object to her excessively utilitarian approach.
Worse still, she entirely failed - she hardly tried – to root out the entrenched state sector mindset which has successfully prevented any real reform at all of the public services, even with all New Labour's billions. Her failure to use the force of her will and her mandate to impose some creative destruction on the public services is why we are so disastrously overwhelmed with regulation, red tape and nonsense jobs today; she could not or would not face down the Circumlocution Office of her day.
As for her taking on the unions, they are bloodied, but now unbowed, to some extent. We don't have closed shops or union bullying, much. But the evils of Scargillism are now forgotten, and major unions once again have great political power, doing deals with the government to prop up the Labour party.
As for housing, Thatcher had a long lasting and powerful influence there, but it has been mixed. Her idea of a property owning democracy was in many ways a good one. The subsidised sale of council housing gave many people a stake in their community and a sense of belonging to the aspirational middle classes; Iain Duncan Smith has recently recommended more of it, for all those reasons.
But it also reduced the stock of public housing for the needy, and contributed to the growth of a nasty and wasteful subsidised private rental sector. And she to some extent played a part in the creation of a national obsession with property not just as home but as must-have asset; some of the effects of that have, obviously enough, been disastrous.
In retrospect, perhaps, all heroes and heroines have feet of clay. I shall never cease to be grateful to Thatcher and the Thatcherites - for the freedom, hope, opportunity and wealth they helped provide, both for me personally and for the country. But her legacy is mixed. Perhaps the jury of history is still out.