February 27, 2009


Margaret Thatcher: still guilty after all these years (26 February 2009, New Statesman)

It is 30 years since Margaret Thatcher entered No 10, setting in motion a revolution that would destroy the quasi-socialist political consensus of the postwar decades and, after much strife, turn Britain into the country it is today: riven, atomised, debt-stricken, hugely unequal, its prosperity excessively dependent on financial services, its public spaces degraded, and its towns, at least at night, the preserve of the binge drinker and the brawler.

Many of us may have grown more wealthy during the Thatcher and the New Labour years but, somehow, we seem as a society more spiritually bereft, more restless, unhappier even. This is not to deny that Britain, at the end of the 1970s, was dismal.

It is legitimate to argue that the absence of a Moral Majority in England meant that Mrs. Thatcher's economic revolution was not accompanied by the sort of spiritual counter-revolution needed to arrest the island's slide into secular rot. Whereas Ronald Reagan brought a sharp break with the malaise of the '60s-'70s and a Third Great Awakening, Britain experienced no such revival of its Judeo-Christian roots. Ironically, as Pope Benedict has argued, this may trace in large part to the fact that Britain has an established Church and we don't. It seems a tad much to blame the Iron Lady for that unfortunate historical artifact.

I was a teenage Tory boy: Harry Mount was seven when Maggie Thatcher came to power. He remains an ardent admirer today - with the odd reservation (Harry Mount, 26 February 2009, New Statesman)

She remains powerfully divisive. When a theatre producer decapitated her statue in the Guildhall Art Gallery with a cricket bat in 2002, it was a sort of compliment - who would attack a statue of John Major 12 years after he left power?

She was hated - real, deep hate - when I was at university, too. That summer, in 1990, I refused to burn my poll tax form in a brazier in the cloisters of Magdalen College, Oxford. It didn't go down well. On St Valentine's Day, I received a mocking card that read: "True Blue, Baby, I Love You." Teaching in Prague that August, I shared a flat with an otherwise affable Welshman who swore viciously at me when I praised her. Hatred of Mrs T was a badge of political honour for my contemporaries, but they jumped on her City bandwagon quickly enough, laying aside their protest flags, cutting their hair and putting on charcoal grey suits for their bank interviews. They hated her, but they knew she was right.

Mrs Thatcher was no Gordon Gecko. Her man­tra wasn't that greed is good; she understood that greed is inevitable in man, and students, too. Under Thatcher, that greed was harnessed to produce greater returns for more people and, after Big Bang in 1986, enormous City fortunes were made. What would her enemies have preferred: the old system, with jobs for the boys, over-regulation and antiquated, open-outcry deals?

Another by-product of this money obsession has been an epidemic of sadness. Tremendous expectations have been raised by consumer choice and the me-first cult. The inability to keep up has led to a boom in antidepressants, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs, of visits to psychiatrists and therapists. Open the mirrored cabinets in half my friends' bathrooms, and you'll find pack up on pack of Xanax and Prozac.

You can hardly say this is Mrs Thatcher's fault. Her one drug was malt whisky, and even that wasn't applied as liberally as is suggested in Margaret, BBC2's rather affectionate drama about her, broadcast on 26 February.

-Au revoir, never goodbye: The values Thatcherism embodied will never go away, argues Dominic Sandbrook, precisely because they are part of mainstream Tory tradition (Dominic Sandbrook, 26 February 2009, New Statesman)
To those who hate her, Thatcher must seem like the title character in Stephen King's novel Carrie. She never knows when she is beaten; she never stops coming. And for three decades, the creed that bears her name, Thatcherism, has been the dominant paradigm of British politics. "We are living in a post-Thatcherite world, a Margaret Thatcher theme park," is the verdict of her best biographer, John Campbell. For the columnist Simon Jenkins, Britain since 1979 has been a family firm, Thatcher & Sons. She "saw the need for change", declared the latest proprietor, Gordon Brown, shortly after taking charge. "I am a conviction politician, like her." [...]

The bad news for the left, however (and the good news for the right), is that reports of Thatcherism's demise have been grossly exaggerated. Certainly the notion that the current crisis marks the end of free-market capitalism seems completely bizarre, even allowing for the understandable attractions of wild hyperbole. We may have entered what threatens to be the deepest recession in decades, but, as yet, there is no sign that capitalism is about to give way to a new form of state socialism. Bankers are still taking home great wads of cash, much to the horror of their shareholders and the press. For all the analogies with the Great Depression and the New Deal, few commentators point out that during the 1930s the motor of global capitalism continued to chug along, albeit at a slower rate than before. And while free-market ideas have certainly been badly tarnished by the crisis, there is little sense of intellectual ferment on the hard left, and certainly no sign of voters deserting the centre ground for more challenging options. If we held a general election tomorrow, let us not forget, the Tories would probably win it.

If the 1930s represent an increasingly popular, if often ill-drawn parallel, then the events of 20 years ago offer an alternative one. The revolutions of 1989 dealt communism a blow from which, judging by the enfeebled state of Marxist parties the world over, it has never recovered, and for some commentators, neoliberalism now faces a similar fate. True-blue Thatcherites would doubtless shudder at the thought, but in truth it is a comparison they have been inviting for years.

In documentary series such as BBC4's fascinating Tory! Tory! Tory!, the veterans of 1979 typically present themselves as a tight-knit band of dedicated outsiders, plotting their way from the wilderness into the heart of government, as faithful to the gospel of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman as any Bolshevik was to Marx and Engels. Theirs, they never cease to remind us, was a peasants' revolt, an uprising against the paternalistic consensus, a revolution. So they can hardly complain when their opponents crow that, for the Thatcherite revolution, the Berlin Wall has just come down.

But all of this rests on a deeply misleading version of Thatcherism's origins, meaning and consequences. In many ways, it was not a revolutionary gospel at all, and in operation it was more fluid, more improvised, more complicated and more contradictory than the neat, sterile neoliberalism of the political science textbooks. For while devotees and opponents alike often give us a stereotyped account of fanatical deregulators, obsessive privatisers and uncompromising free-marketeers, the truth is that its standard-bearer would never have been so successful for so long, had she not been much more cautious and pragmatic than is often remembered. Behind the icy blue eyes about which her admirers rhapsodised, and beneath the strident rhetoric of a lady not for turning, Thatcher was a dedicated career politician, just as capable of backtracking, compromising and changing her mind as any other.

One thing that many people overlook about Thatcherism was that it was never a “creed” in the sense of a coherent, self-contained, carefully worked-out set of beliefs. Thatcher’s personal principles were rigid (unlike, say, David Cameron’s), but judging by the record of her governments, Thatcherism in practice was both more and less than formal neoliberalism, which would never have tolerated, say, the retention of the National Health Service.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2009 8:30 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus