By Sean Gabb
The Greatness of Margaret Thatcher:
An Alternative View
Speech Given to the Property and Freedom Society
Bodrum, 2nd September 2016
When she died in April 2013, the mainstream assumption was that Margaret Thatcher had been something like the kind of person Donald Trump is hoped to be. She had humbled the left. She had brought about fundamental reforms in economic policy. She had made her country strong again and respected in the outer world. This being the assumption, conservatives went into ostentatious mourning, and the leftists rejoiced.
I am aware that one of her personal friends is in this room, and I will say now, for the avoidance of the slightest doubt, that I will speak no ill of her personal character, which appears to have been singularly plain and honest for a British politician. I do not, even so, share the assumption that was general at the time of her death. I will, in the time allowed me, give my settled opinion, which is that, in no sense, was Margaret Thatcher a conservative – let alone a libertarian – hero. Rather, she was, in every sense, the midwife of the leftist police state that is modern Britain.
I begin with her economic policies. When she came to power in 1979, the British Government was running a large budget deficit. This debt was routinely monetised, and the country had known double digit inflation for much of the previous decade. The trade union movement was very strong. It used its strength to demand regular cost of living wage increases for its members, regardless of local circumstances. It also resisted structural changes in manufacturing industry without which wage increases in real terms could not be sustained. Mrs Thatcher’s solution to these problems was disastrous.
You end that kind of inflation by cutting government spending. You shut down a few ministries, and apply real cuts to the salaries of the state employees who remain. She did neither of these things. Instead, she allowed and encouraged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise interest rates to the point where much manufacturing industry found it impossible to borrow. A further effect was a rise in sterling on the foreign exchanges that made our exports uncompetitive. Between 1980 and 1983, about a quarter of British industry disappeared. Unemployment rose past three million, and, bearing in mind all the statistical tricks to hide the true rise, may have gone far beyond that. This unemployment did not come substantially down until the middle of the 1990s, and that fall was largely because many of the long-term unemployed were ageing, and could be moved from unemployment benefit onto their old age pensions.
The effect was to destroy the industrial working class as it had emerged in the nineteenth century. I will try not to romanticise these people. They elected and gave firm support to trade union leaders who resisted all attempts at modernisation, and who were often sympathetic to, or even in the pay of, a hostile foreign power. At the same time, the working classes were our people, and virtually the whole cost of ending the inflation was put on them. The old system of skilled and semi-skilled industrial labour had given dignity to millions of working class people, and both the financial security and general autonomy that allowed them full exercise of the freedoms associated with liberal democracy. At a stroke, they were reduced to the clients of a mean and capricious welfare system, or pushed into menial jobs without security. There was a corresponding rise in divorce, illegitimacy, various kinds of substance abuse, and in political apathy, and in superstition, and in a tendency to witch-hunting hysteria against whoever was described in the media as the monster of the day. This should not have been surprising. It is what always happens when people find that the bottom has dropped out of their world – especially when they know that the authorities have, more or less deliberately, knocked the bottom out of their world.
I appreciate that, in our movement, talk of economic equality is not popular. But, given that we are where we are, and that most actually existing élites owe their positions to less than natural merit, there is a case for avoiding policies that throw large masses of our people into pauperism. Certainly, I spent the first decades of my life in a country where inequality was diminishing, and have spent the rest in a country where it has grown increasingly obvious and accepted. I, for one, know which I preferred.
Who were the beneficiaries of these policies? Not, I tell you, the traditional entrepreneurial class. If the headline rates of income tax were cut – the standard rate from 35% to 25%, the top rates from 98% and 83% to 40% – the overall burden of tax as a percentage of gross domestic product was about the same when Margaret Thatcher left office in November 1990 as when she came in. Hardly anyone had paid the old top rates. A mix of inflation and slower rising thresholds brought many more into the new top rate. If the more obvious regulations were abolished – price controls, for example, and exchange controls – there was a steady growth of other regulations. Tax collection became increasingly rapacious and impenetrable. Health and safety laws became a serious check on business, without making people noticeably more safe or healthy at work. There was an unchecked growth of money laundering laws and, toward the end of the 1980s, of environmental protection laws.
The beneficiaries were workers of all kinds in the state sector, and workers in the service sector – above all those who worked in the City of London after the financial institutions had been transformed into globalised casinos. The problem with the service sector is that, generally speaking, it gives secure and well-paid employment to small minorities at the top. Everyone else is decidedly menial and insecure. I touch again on my point about the undesirability of economic inequality.
But I turn to the state sector. At any time, it would have been unjust to spare this from the costs of ending an evil mostly thrown up by its own growth. But the 1980s were not any time. Mrs Thatcher was always keen on identifying enemies and marking them for destruction. There is a case for this in principle. Her problem was that she consistently identified the wrong enemies. Near the top of her demonology was a group of men who had known the unemployment of the 1930s, and perhaps fought on the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and who thought it would be a fine thing if the supermarkets could be nationalised. These were a nuisance, especially when they also happened to be trade union leaders. But, if a nuisance, they were not an existential threat. There was another group – a much younger and more diverse group – who, because they wore suits and drank mineral water, she regarded as barely a nuisance, but who were an existential threat.
Call these people what you like – the totalitarian humanists, the cultural Marxists, the New Left, the neo-puritans, the Enemy Class: there is still no agreed name for them, though we all recognise them when we see them. As with their name, their fundamental nature remains controversial. Are they disciples of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School? These are the people they read at university, and whose terminology they use. Or are they really the latest manifestation of Anglo-American puritanism? On the one hand, Gramsci and Marcuse had no interest in regulating sex and sexuality, and would have scratched their heads at the War on Smoking. On the other, the people I am discussing have no particular belief in God. There is room for continuing debate on these people. One thing, however, is clear. During the 1980s, they were moving upward in the state sector and in education and all the other sectors funded by the State, and they were growing to dominance in the media. They had no interest in controlling the price of bread, and cared nothing about the white working class. What they wanted was to get inside our heads and to remake us as a people in their own lunatic and evil image. They would do this in the first instance by their control of education and the media. If allowed, they would do it by direct control of the State.
What else is clear is that Mrs Thatcher and her ministers did absolutely nothing to slow their colonisation of the state sector and its associated bodies.
Indeed, they did worse. By 1979, if not so fervently as the Thatcherites, I accept that the trade unions were out of control. The Thatcherite answer, however, was to place the union movement in a legal straitjacket where the older style of trade union official was unable to operate. In consequence, the unions were taken over by university graduates who knew how to make the new system work in their own interests – university graduates, I hardly need add, whose nature and opinions I have already mentioned. Too concerned with her war against Arthur Scargill and his friends – a war in which the traditional working class was collateral damage – she did all but roll out the red carpet for those who later became the friends of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.
Foreigners often wonder how the revolutionary changes made after 1997 by Tony Blair could have been so swift and seemingly irreversible in a country so conservative as England. My answer takes me into a brief digression on the nature of the English Constitution.
For Americans in particular, a constitution is a set of words on paper. Matters of right and wrong in government policy are discussed in terms of how it is legitimised by the explicit wording of a document written in the eighteenth century. This is for me a most alien style of argument, and that is why I find conversation with American conservatives and even libertarians often so tiresome. Properly seen, the constitution of a county emerges from the settled nature of its people. Replace the people, and, obviously, a new constitution will emerge. Over time, the concerns of even a settled people will change in line with new circumstances, and so the constitution will change.
Within this loose framework, radical or ill-considered breaks from what emerged in the past will be prevented, or perhaps slowed, by fixed constitutional rules. This, I grant, justifies much American discussion of exactly what was settled in the 1780s. At the same time, a written constitution is always open to reinterpretation. For example, the first and second sections of the American Bill of Rights appear at present to hang on who nominates the next Judge in the Supreme Court. In America, it is less important who makes the rules than who interprets them.
England has no written constitution. The long stability of our institutions rested instead on a sense of tradition, or an imagined sense of continuity with the distant past. If, in 1980, you had asked the average Englishman to justify trial by jury, his answer might have been that it was a useful check on political justice, and something about the unwisdom of allowing case-hardened judges sitting alone to decide matters of disputed fact. More likely, the justification would have been that trial by jury had existed since at least the thirteenth century – which effectively meant it had existed forever – and that abolishing it would therefore be as unwelcome and outrageous as trying to metricate the clock and the calendar. I suspect this is also the case in America. Once you get behind the verbiage about what such and such a clause of the Constitution says and what it means, you pass to an instinctive belief in not changing what has been long settled. The main difference between our countries is that we avoid the verbiage – and we maintained a free constitution, I will add, for about twice as long as America has existed.
Now the body of customary rules and assumptions and expectations that make – or made – up the English Constitution has no hold on the imagination as a set of individual parts, but as an undifferentiated mass. Everything is connected to everything else, and everything supports everything else. Trial by jury has always existed. So has the English system of weights and measures. So has the wearing of horsehair wigs in court, together with names like “bailiff” and “sheriff” and “plaintiff.” Abolish and make radical changes to any one, and the others are weakened. Make sufficiently radical changes in a short enough time, even to supposedly incidental parts of the constitution, and the fundamental parts may come to be seen as so much clutter from the past, to be cleared away in the supposed interest of fairness of efficiency. The Tory case against constitutional reform in the early nineteenth century can be expressed in one sentence by Lord Eldon: “Touch one atom, and the whole is lost.”
Before about the 1960s, however, constitutional change in Britain was either organic, in the sense that new meanings were, by unspoken consent, attached to ancient forms, or carried through with a decent regard for the unamended remainder. The genius of the Victorian reformers was that they made radical changes to the substance of the Constitution without touching the surface forms; and even the Judicature Acts of the 1870s, which were probably their most fundamental break with the past, were soon absorbed into the perception of an unchanged structure. By 1901, only legal scholars or older lawyers were aware that the courts had ever worked differently.
The Thatcher Government made a century of changes in eleven years. These were carried through with an almost gloating disregard for the proprieties, and were generally to enhance the power of the State. We were given pre-publication censorship for the first time in three hundred years, and a real War on Drugs, and ex-post facto criminal laws, and punishment without conviction or trial, and reversals of the burden of proof in criminal cases. The ancient right to peremptory challenge of jurors was abolished, together with the ancient right of an inquest jury to find a general verdict. The rights to political speech and association were curbed. The agreed rule that police officers were civilians employed and given uniforms to do what everyone else had the right to do was swept aside for the creation of an increasingly armed pro-State militia.
And, talking of militias, it was the Thatcher Government that disarmed us. The Firearms Acts 1920 and 1968 only regulated the right to keep and bear arms. So long as you knew how to fill out the right forms, and what public admissions to avoid, you could have as many guns and as much ammunition as you wanted. The Firearms Act 1988 was our first substantive step to victim disarmament.
I passed my twenties denouncing these changes. I denounced them as bad in themselves, and bad so far as they weakened the cohesion of our ancient constitution. I said they formed precedents for an even more dictatorial future government. I was called a fool and told that the changes were needed to maintain firm and efficient government. Or I was referred to the words of the neo-Marxist Martin Jacques about “a free market in a strong state.” No one paid attention to my reply that there was no free market, and that government was not made observably more efficient.
The volume and speed of change intensified after Mrs Thatcher resigned in 1990, and the Major Government was probably our most authoritarian since the 1680s. In 1997, the Blair Government came in. It found the entire Constitution already broken apart. No work of undermining was needed. This was a government predominantly of the people I have mentioned. It was the work of only three years to clear away the broken mass of our Constitution and create the new order under which we now find ourselves.
In 2001, I had lunch with an old university friend. He complained that the Blair Government was the nearest thing England had ever seen to a Jacobin revolution. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. The Blair Government was Napoleon, creating a new order to replace what had already been destroyed. The Jacobins had been the Thatcher and Major Governments. They had destroyed the ancient constitution. They were the ones who had broken what Walter Bagehot called “the cake of custom.” Every precedent of importance had been set by the Thatcher Government.
When I came out as a libertarian in 1977, I thought it reasonable to support the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. I joined the Party. I took time off my A-Level revision to campaign in the 1979 general election. I hailed the Conservative victory as a new dawn for English liberty. After much head-scratching over the next three years, I had a fresh burst of enthusiasm when the Falklands War began. I spent that war jumping up and down with a Union Flag in each hand. I believed Mrs Thatcher’s libertarian and conservative rhetoric. I was not alone. The millions who voted Conservative in 1979, 1983 and 1987 believed that the country was being saved. I was earlier than most in my disillusion, though not so early as I now feel I should have been. I also took the trouble to write it down at the time. But it is now thirty seven years since Mrs Thatcher became our Prime Minister. That is long enough to see her in perspective. She was no champion of liberty. She was no Ron Paul. Assuming he is what I am assured he is, she was no Donald Trump. She pushed through – or, on the most charitable estimate, she unwittingly fronted – the transformation of our wonderful and beloved England into a sinister foreign country.
At the beginning of my speech, I mentioned her foreign policy. That, however, would be another speech in itself. It is enough to say that, by the time she left office, she had done what every previous British Government since 1945 had carefully tried to avoid. She turned us into an American satrapy. If, before then, it had required American consent, hardly one bullet left the gun of a British soldier by 1990 but on American orders. What she called making Britain strong in the world amounted to nothing more than making us the more efficient servant of a foreign power – and, I would add, a foreign power hostile to our true interests as a nation.
Oh, and no mention of the European Union either – something else she did much to promote, before and after she became Prime Minister.
And so I do not admire Margaret Thatcher. She competes with Tony Blair for the status of our worst peacetime Prime Minister in the century since 1914. For the reasons I have explained, she may have been worse than Tony Blair. I ask you to look through what she promised and then claimed to have delivered. Look through the blast of hot air that attended her death three years ago. Look at what she did. By their fruits ye shall know them, said Christ. She was a corrupt tree bringing forth evil fruit, the bitter taste of which may never leave our mouths.