Friday, November 17, 2006

The legacy of Margaret Thatcher

The recently announced death of Milton Friedman put me in a reflective mood. In particular I was thinking about what the lessons of Thatcherism are for today's generation of political leaders.

Margaret Thatcher, nominally influenced by Friedman and indeed to some degree Friedrich von Hayek, was yet not an acolyte of these thinkers. Up until the 1982 Falklands conflict her government was pragmatic on many issues- encumbered said her allies with the need to accommodate the Heathite "wets". After the victory in the South Atlantic and subsequently in the 1983 election, her administration changed substantially. She became more abrasive and combative. 1984 saw the miners strike- and arguably the defeat of Arthur Scargill's brand on Kremlin supported Marxist unionism was both the end of the 1970's and the beginning of the end of the ideological struggles of the cold war.

Privatisation and the City big bang, with hindsight, may be seen as her lasting contribution, yet by the 1987 election, high Thatcherism was already in decline. The poll tax was emblematic of an administration that had lost much of its ideological impetus, and was creating an ever more centralised state- removing the power of local government to challenge Thatcherite initiatives.

Danger signals -such as profound Scottish resistance to the poll tax- were ignored and despite the power of Margaret Thatcher in her pomp, she grew more isolated. Milton Friedman himself noted that the compromises of power had already blunted the ideological purity of the government.

Thatcherism did not survive the defenestration of its heroine - quickly descending to the bathos of John Major's "cone hotline", section 28, and ever more creeping centralisation. Thatcherism did not embrace social liberalism, still less the idea of open politics, even while it took much inspiration from Hayek's view of economic liberalism.

So Margaret Thatcher: socially conservative, proudly provincial, created a partial transformation- and a controversial one at that. Though in foreign affairs she had a clear agenda, which enabled to identify the evils of Communism- and of Milosovic at a time when Major and Hurd appeased him- at home her legacy was more pragmatic, and more mixed. Friedman knew this and though he accepted the compromises that all political leaders must make, it is clear that he grew estranged from Thatcherism during the later years in office.

Her legacy?

The end of direct Marxist influence in British political life (although seeing ex-Stalinists such as Jack Straw or John Reid in office still irritates me) -the defeat of the Soviet funded union leaderships. Her clarity in opposing Soviet power. Though the Rail Privatisation was ended by de facto nationalisation of Railtrack, still the presumption is that private enterprise has a positive ethos.

Her further legacy?

The alienation of Scotland- to the point where the Conservative brand is fatally compromised. Although Scots such as Michael Forsyth were her most faithful acolytes, they too understood the rage of the nation at the patronising lecturing that grated so strongly. The centralisation of power in Whitehall and the reduction of local government to a mere adjunct to the central government with little budget control.

Friedman was still proud of his star European pupil, yet though much progress may be ascribed to his ideas, perhaps the key lesson is that power obscures your vision- a lesson that Tony Blair has learned all over again in Iraq.


Jock Coats said...

On a point of information, Section 28 was definately a Thatcher/Knight production. Local Government Act 1988.

Cicero said...

Yes- the point is that Major persisted with the unworkable load of cack...

Anonymous said...

Good summary.

Its unfortunate that Friedman is now associated with her... and what people remember is the worst stuff...

Its funny how people say 'privatisation doesn't work, look at the railways', but forget that BT was privatised and now the phone system is orders of magnitude better... yet damage done by the left is glossed over, even when it comes to the miners unions...

Thatcher was influenced by Friedman (who was very much influenced by Hayek, although I believe they do differ) but she was not a follower.

Etzel Pangloss said...

Tony Blair is/was a major legacy of Margaret Thatcher.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Cicero. I do think the seminal event was the collapse of Communism in 1989, the ramifications of which influence us even now.

The death of the traditional "enemy", socialism, which Tories like Thatcher demonised in order to secure votes, enabled Tony Blair to transform Labour into a non-socialist party of the centre-left and convince voters it was "safe" to vote Labour.

Without that sense of purpose, the Conservatives were doomed. I think they have yet to recover.

Cicero said...

anonymous- Yes, you might say that the Conservatives have been punished for their anti-Communism.

However, I think that the real problem is that the Conservatives lost their ideological point- and the wishy-washy positions of Cameron just look like mush. Unless the Conservatives can rediscover principles and clarity in presenting them, it is hard to see great enthusiasm for them. The only hope for the Tories is that Labour continue to be aa melting blancmange- but given a choice of New Labour and new, New Labour, we can't be surprised if they look elsewhere.