Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Mistakes of Margaret Thatcher

As Lady Thatcher emerges from hospital, she must have been somewhat buoyed by a poll that suggests that she remains the most influential woman in the World. However her influence rests with a period of office that came to an end nearly twenty years ago.

With the benefit of the hindsight given by those twenty years I think its is possible to begin to make a judgement on the eleven years that she served as Prime Minister. Certainly for all the adulation that the Conservatives offer her now, she was not generally popular either in the country at large or in her own party for large periods of her time in office. The confrontational way she addressed the challenges that the post war decline of the UK created for the country was never going to make her a healing figure- despite her quotation of St. Francis when she entered office.

There are two, sharply polarised, positions of conventional wisdom concerning the Thatcher government. The first is the adulation of the Conservatives- and not just in the UK- Margaret Thatcher defeated the Communist funded Unions at home and the Communist governments of the Warsaw Pact and ushered in a new more energetic spirit of entrepreneurship into a UK that had grown tired of the tepid failure of post war "Butskillism". The second is the view of the Left, which has been forcefully -and offensively- expressed in the past couple of weeks: that Thatcher was evil, that she knowingly destroyed entire communities and inflicted unnecessary damage on the productive capacity of the UK.

I have met Lady Thatcher in recent years, and if her health is now very poor, it is still possible to get a spark of the combative personality that she once was. However when she asked "is he one of us?", she was, remember asking it of members of her own party. The habits of compromise were deeply ingrained into the Conservative Party and partly as a result, the Thatcherite revolution remained incomplete at the time of her defenestration in 1991. I think Margaret Thatcher did not understand that, against all her most conservative instincts, the only way to secure her move to free markets in the economy was to open up the political system too. It was her failure to understand the need for a free market in politics that condemned Britain to the bathos of the Major years and the dead end of Blair. It was a failure that destroyed the Conservative Party in Scotland- once one of the strongest Tory heartlands- and created a constitutional crisis that remains unresolved to this day.

As for the critique of the left- that her policies inflicted unnecessary damage on the British industrial base- I think that there is indeed much evidence that this is the case. Despite the global migration of industry to China, Germany has not seen the kinds of declines that the UK has, and is a far stronger economy as a result. While the 1986 "Big Bang" unleashed a tide of creative destruction in finance, the long term consequences remain unproven, but the destruction of manufacturing has permanently impoverished large areas of the Kingdom. Defenders of the Thatcher legacy argue that she had little choice given the dependency of much of this industry on the state and the Communist penetration of the Unions in enterprises such as British Shipbuilding, British Leyland and of course British Coal. Certainly, now we have been able to read the KGB archive, there is little doubt that many Union leaders, directly or indirectly, were dancing to Moscow's tune.

If the economic legacy of Thatcherism is highly controversial, her foreign policy is far less so. Her determination to forge a stronger resistance to the USSR in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan and the crushing of the Polish Solidarity movement, at times made her seem at least the equal partner of her political soul mate, Ronald Reagan, who was elected eighteen months after she had come to power. The deployment of short range nuclear missiles to match the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 in the early 1980s was hugely controversial at the time, but in retrospect it was the only way to reinforce NATO in the face of a concerted attempt to subvert it by the Soviet leadership. Yet, as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev emerged from the senile pack of the CPSU leadership, she recognised his value. In the end it was not her resistance that undermined the USSR, it was the fact that she was willing to "do business" with the Soviets that accelerated the pace of change in the moribund Soviet state.

Arguably, had the Thatcher government understood the need for a wider revolution - a constitutional one- then the UK would have been able to transform itself far more radically. In the end she could not transcend her own conservatism in order to complete the liberal revolution that she aspired to. She had a wider vision internationally than she had domestically. Figures such as Arthur Scargill or Jack Jones- self declared militant Socialists- prevented any engagement with the government that could have addressed the problems of British industry pragmatically. Then- as now- the loathing of Margaret Thatcher by the Left did not allow them to engage with or even understand her: the polarisation of politics that resulted (and remains) is at least the result of the vituperation of the defeated Left as the inflexibility of Margaret Thatcher herself.

Even today the language of the Labour Party refuses to accept that Conservatives or Liberal Democrats are motivated by good motives. Labour then, as now, ascribes the basest motives to their political opponents, failing to recognise that they are at least as idealistic as themselves. It is this wilful blindness that allowed people on the left to behave so disgracefully: talking of parties to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher when she entered hospital. This visceral hatred from the left is now being turned on the Liberal Democrats, who are routinely pilloried as "traitors", as though Socialism had any greater moral force than the Liberal ideal of freedom. The hatred of the left is a fearful thing, but it has allowed Liberal Democrats to finally understand the fact that it rests on the fear of the Left that Socialism has failed.

Indeed Socialism has failed, and it was not just the years of Margaret Thatcher that demonstrated this failure. The Blair-Brown years have ultimately been as economically catastrophic as the 1970s, and if the legacy of John Smith forced Labour to at least begin to address constitutional reform, the advent of the coalition should now allow that work to be completed. Freer votes, an elected House of Lords, local government reform, a transfer of powers from Whitehall to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local government, and a wholesale slimming of the state may only gain the partial approval of Lady Thatcher, but they are at least as necessary as the radical economic changes that she brought about.

I think it interesting how little today's politicians claim the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, and the reason is that her legacy is not an unalloyed success. If in foreign policy her instincts were almost always right, this was far less true domestically. Although the mistakes of her political enemies allowed her the victory of the Miner's Strike in 1984, in fact British manufacturing was not renewed: it was replaced by the more intangible benefits from the success of the City. That such success was questionable was evident even as early as the crash of 1987, which forced a bargain price onto the BP privatisation, and it is even more questionable today.

So although I wish Margaret Thatcher well on her recovery, I would also say that as a historical figure she made many mistakes and that her lasting impact may be that she may inspire greater change than she herself was able to achieve in office. She does indeed remain influential.

She does not leave an unblemished legacy, but at least she recognised the scale of the problems and made attempts to address them. If we compare her demonstrable sincerity with the charlatanism and personal greed of Tony Blair, she certainly looks better by personal comparison. In the end, if the coalition can continue to deliver a structured programme of economic and political reform, then perhaps the mistakes of the 1980s may not be repeated.

That would not be a dishonourable legacy.

4 comments:

Span Ows said...

What a great post. I'm a Thatcher fan but know it wasn't all rosy but this is as fair a peice as I've seen in a long time. Well written too.

One point I would make is that the industrial decline - be it shipbuilding, cars or coal - began long before Margaret thatcher's 'reign'; even before she became'known'.

Span Ows said...

...sorry for typos!

loadofoldstodge said...

As cogent an analysis as any I've seen about the Thatcher years to be honest.

I struggle with the numerous paradoxes of the period - the technological advances of the 80s were a huge spur to change.

The economic revolution caused a social revolution unpredicted by the Thatcherites and with consequences we have to live with today.

doctorhuw said...

A very fair summary of a politician who seldom has justice done to her by either side. Thank you.