Sunday 4 November 2007

Margaret Thatcher

For a long, long time I've had trouble making up my mind about Margaret Thatcher. I was actually glad when she came to power, because she removed Labour. That gladness very quickly turned to dislike and slowly into a hatred of all she stood for. That has been replaced equally slowly in recent years by a more tempered assessment of a person who is a very complex character.

Simon Jenkins, in Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts, argues that she carried out two revolutions - an economic one, which benefitted the country enormously, and a centralisation of power, which didn't.

(He then argues that the second revolution needs to be undone by a concerted decentralisation of power to regions, cities, boroughs, parishes, etc. Given that this has consistently been a central plank of Liberal Democrat policy since before he cut his political teeth, it's interesting that he seems to dislike the LibDems so much.)

Thinking about that crystallised some thoughts which have been on their way for some time. In my view, Margaret Thatcher did carry out two revolutions, but one was not the one Jenkins thinks it is. The first revolution is the economic and industrial one, on which most people are pretty much agreed nowadays - it needed doing, and because Thatcher did it so far and so fast, we now have a much stronger economy than we might have had. (And incidentally one that is so far out of kilter with most of our colleagues in the European Union that it is at the root of most of our squabbles with them, along with an outdated English view of the meaning of nationhood.)

One of the characteristics of a revolution is that it starts and it stops. In other words the whole process is subsumed under that heading. I think the economic revolution under Thatcher was more or less that. Very little had happened prior to her in the way of noticing that the world economy had changed and the industrial hegemony of developed countries was on the way out. Very little had happened to take on board the fact of the information revolution with its implication that services, and the movement and manipulation of information, would be a priceless asset in years to come. Arguably Thatcher only went part of the way on that one, because the big revolution in IT, particularly the web and mobile technology, was still to come. But she transformed Britain's economic landscape from predominantly an industrial one to a much more mixed economy with a large, probably dominant, service sector. That movement, and the deregulation that accompanied it, largely finished when Thatcher left office. Any movements since can be better described as tinkering rather than revolutionary, and in some senses there has been a reversal, with more rather than less regulatory burden on business, as well as a (slightly) higher burden of tax. Interestingly there is not a big argument about tax today. There are lots of little ones, which people keep trying to turn into big ones, but all the main players seem to be more or less agreed as to the general level of taxation.

So the economic revolution was, and remains, a revolution. What about the centralisation revolution? I'm not so sure about that. It's very complicated because in one way Thatcher decentralised mightily, by selling off state owned industry. She did centralise political power, and taxing power, by bringing powers in to the centre from local government, but I don't see that as being revolutionary. Central government already supported local government to a very significant extent through the rate support grant - I don't have the figures to hand. She put the squeeze on deliberately and for specific purposes - to reduce spending and to reduce the power of Labour strongholds. But she didn't go much beyond that, and, furthermore, the tightening of control was extended by subsequent governments, and indeed went much further than Thatcher had ever envisaged - the whole surveillance revolution was after her time. So I would call the centralisation thing a significant step, perhaps a very significant one, but not a revolution.

But I do think there was a second revolution. It was a more personal one, and one which remains an issue today. I'll summarise it first and then try to describe in more detail what I mean. It was the introduction of a spirit of nastiness into British and particularly English life which still stains it today.

Margaret Thatcher herself was/is a nasty person. She is capable of warmth and charm, but her default mode is nastier than that. She epitomises the manner of early non-conformist capitalism brilliantly summarised by Hugo Young as "aggressive thrift". She was very strong minded indeed, and she was correct to a fault. She was happiest when in a fight with someone. She seemed, according again to Young, to be incapable of reaching a decision without having an argument first. In other words, she had to fight. Arguably the economic revolution carried out under her leadership could have been achieved at much less human cost. But I believe she didn't just count the suffering of the workers as worth it, she actually wanted to make them suffer. I have no doubt that she believed she was doing right - but it's a very old testament, and very flawed view of the nature of the world.

I note that I oscillate between past and present tense when speaking about her. This is itself significant. The person "Margaret Thatcher" is definitely a "was". There is a live person, who "is", whose name is "Lady Thatcher". But, shorn of her power, Lady Thatcher is irrelevant. It was the wielding of power with single minded and utterly focussed will that made Margaret Thatcher the force she was. And she is no longer that force.

Margaret Thatcher was the complete hypocrite. She led a very correct life herself. She never strayed from her marriage, and she never took a bribe. And you can be absolutely sure that she would never have taken one. But she presided over a cabinet that became utterly corrupt under her tutelage. She actively encouraged that corruption by energetically supporting every one of her ministers until it became evident that they could not survive. And she was always so self righteous about it. Most of the evidence came out under Major, when it seemed hardly a month went by without some Tory being found with his hands in someone else's underwear or someone else's wallet. But it was Margaret Thatcher who set the tone. It was Thatcher's government that was enthusiastically selling weaponry to Iraq during the 1980s and it was her proteges who were apparently ready to see innocent business people go to jail rather than admit the truth. Only the ultimate maverick, Alan Clarke, was finally prepared to tell the truth in court.

(By comparison - whatever you think of Labour sleaze, no Labour minister or MP has yet been jailed.)

A further example - the Westminster gerrymandering, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher's powerful belief that the end justified the means (strange that a non-conformist upbringing should lead to such a Jesuitical stance). I don't blame Margaret Thatcher for Shirley Porter's criminality and viciousness. I do blame her for bringing about a culture in which people thought that kind of behaviour was justifiable if it worked.

And finally, her lionising of General Pinochet, when he was quite rightly and properly being pursued on a charge of murder. And we have discovered since how corrupt Pinochet was. Again, I don't blame her for Pinochet. I do blame her for having no problem in not just consorting with him but regarding him as a close friend. And, once again the crucial point, she was so self righteous about it. The presenting to him of a plate celebrating the victory over the Armada says it all. Pinochet (dictator, murderer, corrupt embezzler) is our ally. Spain (democracy, engaging Pinochet by the rule of law) is our enemy.

"Greed is good" was part of a larger movement than Thatcherism. But Thatcher enthusiastically endorsed it by her actions, even though the self righteous tone of her rhetoric would not allow her to say it outright. She encouraged other people to "do unto others" by the example of her own instinctive aggression and by the permission she gave to them to break any rule if it was in the way. Allied to a rhetoric of individual responsibility - look after yourself because nobody else is going to - the result was, in my opinion, lethal for morality.

The overall result of that was the production of a tone of behaviour, not among everybody, but among significant numbers of some classes. There are still many people in this country today who have taken their tone from Margaret Thatcher - what she did herself, and what she encouraged others to do. If somebody else is in the way of what you want, then every means is justified to get them out of the way. According to some commentators, we have a generation of young men who are so self centred that they have become criminally minded. That generation, if it exists, which I'm not sure about, was brought up under Thatcherism, and the taint of her morality shows. I don't believe it is limited to a few young spivs though. It shows in boardroom behaviour where CEOs seem to genuinely believe that having a pay package an average of 70 times staff earnings is justifiable. And it is fuelled by the Thatcherite belief that there is no such thing as society, which implies that there is no reason to be responsible to anyone else. She completed that phrase by saying you have individuals and you have families - another good example of her hypocrisy when you look at the number of her ministers who flouted family values, and the amount of support that families didn't get when they were suffering through her restructuring of the economy.

There are many people who are not infected of course, many who inoculated themselves against Thatcher at the earliest possible moment. But that attitude that says that any law, any morality can be broken because I have a higher morality - me, is still too evident in the actions of too many people.


Left Lib said...

Thatcher's centralising of power went hand in hand with her economic strategy, it was a way of reigning in public spending.
I do not understand your ambivalence towards Thatcherism, it was a creed that devided the nation more than any other, as Hugo Young pointed out in "One of us".
I do not understand why you let Thatcher off the hook vis-a-vis Pinochet. He was a dispicable dictator. Of course he went even further to centralise power than Thatcher did in order to persue his own version of Thatcherism.
The Thatcher regime was the most illiberal post WW2 regime that this country has every had.

Rob Parsons said...

Thank you for your comment. I didn't let her off the hook about Pinochet. If it reads as if I did, then I need to tighten up my language ;-)

What I meant was that she wasn't responsible for Pinochet - he was responsible for himself. But she was and remains responsible for making him a close friend, which I think my piece clearly condemns.