Thatcher's Tragic Flaws

Margaret Thatcher at Her Zenith: In London, Washington and Moscow not only celebrates Thatcher’s  many virtues but brilliantly captures the tragic flaws that were to bring her career to a bitter and unplanned end. Her fall was sad not only for her personally, but for classical liberalism more generally, because she left without grooming a successor who could have continued her reforms.

To begin, there is Thatcher’s character. The very single-mindedness and refusal ever to admit error that helped her push though transformative policies alienated everyone. Her opponents within the Conservative party were energized to wait for an inevitable misstep. But even Thatcher’s closest allies fell out with her. The book recounts how, as Prime Minister, Thatcher irritated and belittled Norman Tebbit, a star of her cabinet who had both the common touch and toughness to carry on her policies. Sadly, part of the reason for her abusive treatment was fear: she worried that he might gain the grassroots support to oust her, although he was in fact one of her most loyal acolytes.

Moreover, without a sound successor, Thatcher was unable to safeguard her legacy when she resigned for lack of sufficient support in the party. She had to choose John Major, who had been inadequately vetted as a short-term member of the cabinet. He turned out to be something of an opportuntist who was both unwilling and incapable of pushing Thatcher’s revolution further.

The other great tragic flaw was an intellectual mistake. Annoyed that left-wingers in local government were raising property and other taxes that “hurt her people,” meaning natural conservatives, Thatcher removed their powers of taxation. She replaced it with a national assessment called the poll tax, which hit the poor and middle class hard and thus proved exceedingly unpopular. More than any other policy, the poll tax inspired the revolt of her conservative backbenchers that ended her career.

The poll tax was also wrong as matter of principle. Devolution of power is part of the classical liberal order, even when those powers are misused. If the Liverpool local council was taxing too much, individuals could move elsewhere. This kind of jurisdictional competition is a well-recognized strength of American federalism. More generally, the diffusion of power creates a market for local government and opportunities for experimentation.

Thatcher’s flaws, therefore, provide a lesson for the next great classical liberal revival. Avoid too much centralization of power—either in the leader or the national government.