What Hath Thatcher Wrought?

Margaret Thatcher aroused admiration and loathing in equal measure, but not even her worst enemy would have called her nondescript. Hardly anyone could remain indifferent to her and even with the passage of time, which normally introduces qualifications and nuances into reputations, she remains a divisive figure in Britain and elsewhere: most people are still either entirely for her or entirely against her. Of no political figure of the recent past has it been so difficult for people to say ‘On the one hand… but on the other.’ Such was the force of her personality that, according to a paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1985, she was able to impress herself even upon the memory of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

History does not judge politicians: it is people who judge, usually in the light of their own current preoccupations. No final estimate of Margaret Thatcher can be made, therefore, but it is unlikely that she will ever be considered a mere machine politician, dull and grey as John Major, Gordon Brown or David Cameron, or shallow and meretricious as Anthony Blair. Whether you agree with them or not, it would be easy to put forward a reasonably coherent set of views in which she believed; by contrast formulating the political philosophy of the others would be like trying to catch a cloud with a butterfly net.

Coherent political conviction or doctrine, however, does not necessarily lead to coherent practical political action. Before she was Prime Minister, Thatcher was Secretary of Education under the catastrophic government of Edward Heath. Obliged to make savings in the state education budget, she decided to deprive 7 to 11 year-olds of the milk that until then had been distributed free of charge to children in schools. It would have been easy to make out a Thatcherite case for this measure: after all, two weeks’ supply of milk would have cost less than a single packet of cigarettes and Mrs Thatcher believed strongly in the primary responsibility of parents rather than of the state for the welfare of their children. But the episode was a public relations disaster, at any rate among that large section of the population (whose size Mrs Thatcher was always inclined to underestimate) that believed that, on the contrary, the state was, and ought to be, the wise parent of us all. Someone coined the slogan ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher!’ and it stuck. For many it cast her permanently in the role of the wicked stepmother or even witch, the hard-hearted person who would spitefully deny the vulnerable their ‘rights’ to tangible benefits. In her memoirs, Mrs Thatcher said that she learned from this episode that she should not expend a great deal of political capital on a small or relatively insignificant goal, but it was not the last time she made this mistake.

Much more serious during her time as Secretary for Education was her continuation of the previous government’s supposedly egalitarian policy of closing down state-funded grammar schools in favour of comprehensive schools, to which all children, irrespective of ability, would thenceforth go. Grammar schools existed in all areas, and selected the children, about 10 per cent, who were most gifted academically (Mrs Thatcher had attended one herself). They had high standards and virtually guaranteed the social ascension of the children of the poor who went to them. Their closure, in which Mrs Thatcher played the very important role of non-resistance, was an educational, social and cultural disaster: educational because academic standards quickly fell; social because grammar schools were the most visible institutions of elitism based upon ability rather than social exclusivity, whose closure helped to turn a class into a caste society; and cultural because their closure symbolized a loss of faith in the idea of higher and lower cultures, the latter soon triumphing over and swamping the former. This loss of belief had deleterious economic and social or civilizational effects, not easily calculable by size but very serious in the long term. It would be difficult to think of a less Thatcherite policy than that carried out by Mrs Thatcher when Secretary for Education.

She was elected Prime Minister at the end of the 1970s, a grim and humiliating decade for Britain, in which labor unions sought to protect what they saw as their slice of the economic cake without any regard to the means by which the size of the cake might be maintained, let alone increased, and the population believed that a slow slide into impoverishment was inevitable. When Mrs Thatcher came to power, public services were collapsing and power cuts were frequent in the land of the industrial revolution.

Mrs Thatcher soon, and very courageously, faced down the prepotent unions, which saw themselves by then as a fourth arm of government equal in theory and more powerful in practice than the legislature, executive and judiciary. She preferred conflict to yet anther surrender, which she believed, rightly, would only postpone the evil day of reckoning. She undermined union power by allowing inefficient industries to collapse wholesale, creating mass unemployment. Thus the unions were broken; but the social problem that resulted was that large areas of the country were completely dependent economically on these defunct industries, and no solution was either offered or has yet been found other than long term subsidies by the vastly more dynamic service sector of the economy which Mrs Thatcher undoubtedly unleashed. This explains why, even in boom times, so much of the country resembles (economically) the Soviet Union with takeaway pizza. And her educational reforms during her time as Secretary for Education actually destroyed the model of ascent by personal effort that was needed above all in the areas of industrial collapse.

In foreign affairs she was partly successful. She did nothing to halt the European juggernaut with its preposterously square wheels; but she played a major role in ending the Cold War and she was undoubtedly the greatest reformer in Argentinian history, destroying the political influence of the military in that country for a long time to come, if not for ever. It is unlikely, however, that many statues of her will be erected to her in gratitude in that country.

Her long-term effect on her own country was far more equivocal than is commonly thought. She undoubtedly succeeded in reviving a commercial spirit among a large sector of the population, which until her had been almost dead, but in fact changed very little where the public sector was concerned – except for the worse. She found the latter inefficient and left it inefficient and corrupt.

The stridency of her rhetoric against the state disguised the fact that under her rule the role of the state remained as preponderant in millions of people’s lives as ever it had been before; government expenditure may have decreased (temporarily) as a proportion of GDP but it increased absolutely, above all in areas such as social security. Mrs Thatcher believed in business-style management as a solution to the inefficiencies of the public sector, but without the disciplinary influence of the bottom line; and so, while certain business practices (such as large perquisites for managers, bonuses and so forth) were easy enough to introduce, real efficiency was not. The targets set by the government were largely procedural in nature and in any case where bureaucracies are set targets by a government the result is generally organized lying (ironically, Mrs Thatcher ignored the lessons of the Soviet Union and became something of a Leninist herself.) In fact, Mrs Thatcher, no doubt unwittingly, instituted the regime of legalized corruption under which we now live, and which Mr Blair expanded with the low cunning that was his particular form of intelligence. He saw it as an opportunity to create a power base, a Nomenklatura-like class that will be very difficult to dismantle; and now, thanks to Mrs Thatcher’s faith in managerialism, private looting of the public purse takes place on a scale not seen since the Eighteenth Century.

Her error in part was to have failed to recognize the change in the character of the British people. She imagined them as they were in pre-war Grantham, the small Lincolnshire town where she was born: honest, prudent, modest, striving, thrifty, virtuous, duty-bound and patriotic. The intervening years, however, had changed their character; they, or many of them, had become very nearly the opposite of all those things. And she increased their dishonesty further by a small reform that corrupted the legal profession and the population alike: she permitted lawyers to advertise, which they had never been permitted to do before. The law now stifles everything from thought and speech to law enforcement and economic enterprise.

Strident in rhetoric but timid in practice where it mattered most, Mrs Thatcher managed to discredit in the minds of many the very necessary reforms that never took place. Her memory, hated by many, thus stands in the way of real change.

For all that, however, she was undoubtedly a towering figure. Personally she was far more charming than most people would have suspected. If her rhetoric provoked disproportionate hatred, it at least raised important questions and awoke many from their mental slumbers. For a time she restored faith that decline was not inevitable. But one of the lessons of her life is that one person in a democracy, however remarkable, cannot singlehandedly change a nation. We in Britain are firmly back to square one, with a public sector proportionately larger than when she came to power 34 years ago.