The Meaning of Margaret Thatcher

The Times of London | Published on April 18, 2013

By Roger Scruton

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For many people of conservative temperament, it looked in the late 1970s as though Britain were ready to surrender all that it stood for: its pride, its enterprise, its ideals of freedom and citizenship, even its borders and its national defence.
The country seemed to be wallowing in collective guilt feelings, reinforced by a growing culture of dependency. For politicians on the left ‘patriotism’ had become a dirty word, more or less synonymous with ‘racism’. For politicians on the right, nothing seemed to matter, save the rush to be a part of the new Europe, whose markets would protect us from the worst effects of post-war stagnation. The national interest had been displaced by vested interests: by the unions, the establishments, and the ‘captains of industry’.

The situation was especially discouraging for conservatives. For Edward Heath, their nominal leader, believed that to govern is to surrender: we were to surrender the economy to the managers, the education system to the socialists and sovereignty to Europe. The old guard of the Tory Party largely agreed with him, and had joined in the scapegoating of Enoch Powell, the only one among them who had publicly dissented from the post-war consensus. In the bleak years of the seventies, when a culture of repudiation spread through the universities and the opinion-forming elites, it seemed that there was no way back to the great country that had successfully defended our civilisation in two world wars.

Then, in the midst of our discouragement, Margaret Thatcher appeared, as though by a miracle, at the head of the Conservative Party. I well remember the joy that spread through the University of London, where I was teaching. At last there was someone to hate! After all those dreary years of socialist consensus, poking in the drab corners of British society for the dingy fascists and racists who were the best that could be found by way of an enemy, a real demon had come on the scene: a leader of the Tory Party, no less, who had the effrontery to declare her commitment to the market economy, private enterprise, the freedom of the individual, national sovereignty and the rule of law – in short to all the things that Marx had dismissed as ‘bourgeois ideology’. And the surprise was that she did not mind being hated by the Left, that she gave as good as she got, and was able to carry the people with her.

She encouraged the electorate to recognize that the individual’s life is his own and the responsibility of living it cannot be borne by anyone else, still less by the state. She set out to release the talent and enterprise that, notwithstanding decades of egalitarian claptrap, she believed yet to exist in British society. The situation she inherited was typified by the National Economic Development Council, set up under a lame Conservative government in 1962, in order to manage the country’s economic decline. Staffed by big-wigs from industry and the civil service ‘Neddy’, as it was known, devoted itself to perpetuating the illusion that the country was in ‘safe hands’, that there was a plan, that managers, politicians and union leaders were in it together and working for the common good. It epitomized the old British establishment, which addressed the nation’s problems by appointing committees of the people who had caused them. Its ruling idea was that economic life consists in the management of existing industries, and not in the creation of new ones. Wilson, Heath and Callaghan had all relied upon Neddy to confirm their shared belief that, if you held on long enough, things would come out OK and any blame would fall on your successor. By contrast Margaret Thatcher believed that, in business as in politics, the buck stops here. The important person in a free economy is not the manager but the entrepreneur – the one who takes risks and meets the cost of them. Entrepreneurs create things; managers entomb them: so she taught us, and it was immediately apparent that she was right, since the effects of the management culture lay all around us.

I say it was immediately apparent, but it was not apparent to the intellectual class, which has remained largely wedded to the post-war consensus to this day. The idea of the state as a benign father-figure, who guides the collective assets of society to the place where they are needed, and who is always there to rescue us from poverty, ill-health or unemployment, has remained in the foreground of academic political science in Britain. Only this morning, preparing a lecture in political philosophy, I was interested to discover that the prescribed text describes something called the New Right, associated by the author with Thatcher and Reagan, as a radical assault on the vulnerable members of society. The author’s argument is devoted to the distribution of wealth, on the assumption that this is the main task of government and that government is uniquely competent to embark on it. The fact that wealth can be distributed only if it is first created seems to have escaped his notice.

To set about creating wealth Margaret Thatcher had first to break the power of the unions, which meant confronting Stalinists like Arthur Scargill. That great conflict was only one of many. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from her political style is that negotiation and compromise may sometimes be right, but that confrontation and defiance are just as important, and sometimes the only resource. She understood the damage that had been done to our country throughout the 20thcentury by the policy of appeasement. And when the opportunity came to choose confrontation instead, she immediately and instinctively grasped it. Her decision to resist the junta of fascist generals who had seized power in Argentina recalled Queen Elizabeth 1st confronting King Philip of Spain. The Falklands war restored our national pride, and strengthened Thatcher’s resolve to counter the Soviet menace. It also gave her the authority to confront the IRA and to show the Republican movement that terrorist tactics would not succeed.

Lady Thatcher’s ambitions went far beyond her unaided capacity to achieve them. She hoped to reform the education system, opposing the socialist apparatchiks who control it and holding up their “progressive” curriculum to scorn. But she had no policy that could possibly defeat them, and education remains a socialist fiefdom to this day, notwithstanding Michael Gove’s brave attempts to reform it. She would have liked to take on the welfare state itself, and to persuade people that their lives could be better, freer and simpler if the welfare system belonged to them and not to the bureaucrats. But you cannot take on vested interests without making yourself hated, and you cannot enjoy the support of the ordinary middle-class voter without arousing the anger of the intellectuals, who dislike nothing so much as the ordinary middle-class voter. Regular letters would appear in The Times, signed by the great and the good of the day, denouncing this or that policy of her government as the prelude to irreversible disaster. Proposed for an honorary doctorate at her alma mater, Oxford University, she was resoundingly voted down by a Convocation that was not impressed by her standing as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. The vote called to mind that of the Oxford Union in 1933, when the motion that ‘this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and country’ was carried by a large majority. On both occasions Oxford showed how little our intellectual establishment has in common with the British people.

Of course Thatcher was not an intellectual, and was motivated more by instinct than by a properly worked out philosophy. As the Times editorial put it, on the day after her death, she was a ‘woman of simple truths’. Pressed for arguments she leaned too readily on market economics, and ignored the deeper roots of conservatism in the theory and practice of civil society. Her passing remark that ‘there is no such thing as society’ was gleefully seized upon by my university colleagues as proof of her crass individualism, her ignorance of social philosophy, and her allegiance to the values of the new generation of businessmen, which could be summarized in three words: money, money, money. Actually what Thatcher meant on that occasion was quite true, though the opposite of what she said. She meant that there is such a thing as society, but that society is not identical with the state. Society is composed of people, freely associating, and forming communities of interest that socialists have no right to control, and no authority to subject to their obsessions. To express it in that way, however, was not Thatcher’s style and not what her followers expected of her. What the British public wanted, and what they got, was the kind of instinctive politician whom they could see at once to be speaking for the nation, whether or not she had the right fund of abstract arguments. She spoke simply and intelligibly of freedom and enterprise. But, as Charles Moore pointed out in his delicate and perceptive tribute in the Daily Telegraph, she was convinced that the rule of law was more important than either of those things, since without it they could not endure. She saw the law of our country as deeply entwined with our national history, and as defining a unique and precious perspective on the world.

Of course, she felt the winds of intellectual scorn that blew around her, and sheltered behind a praetorian guard of economic advisers versed in ‘market solutions’, ‘supply-side economics’, ‘consumer sovereignty’, and the rest. But those fashionable slogans did not capture her core beliefs. All her most important speeches as well as her enduring policies stemmed from a consciousness of national loyalty. She believed in our country and its institutions, and saw them as the embodiment of social affections nurtured and stored over centuries. Family, civil association, the Christian religion and the common law were all integrated into her ideal of freedom under law. And in her judgment that was the cause for which our country had stood up in the past and must stand up in the future.

Lady Thatcher so changed things that it became impossible for the Labour Party to wrap itself again in its Victorian cobwebs: Clause IV (the commitment to a socialist economy) was dropped from its constitution, and a new middle-class Party emerged, retaining nothing of the old agenda apart from the desire to punish the upper class, and the odd belief that the way to do this is by banning fox-hunting. At the time, however, it was not Thatcher’s impact on domestic policy that was most vividly felt but her presence on the international stage. Her commitment to the Atlantic alliance, and preparedness to stand side by side with President Reagan in defiance of the Soviet threat entirely changed the atmosphere in Eastern Europe. Quite suddenly people who had been broken and subdued by the totalitarian routine learned that there were Western leaders who were prepared to press for their liberation. John O’Sullivan has forcefully argued that the simultaneous presence in the highest offices of Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II was the cause of the Soviet collapse. And my own experience confirms this. Working with underground networks in the communist states, I learned that Eastern Europeans of my generation were not merely disillusioned with communism. They had discovered that capitalism – the bogey-man of all the communist fairy-tales – was real, positive and believable. If Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan believed in it, then they would believe in it too. And their eagerness to learn about capitalism was a great inspiration to me in those days when the subject was all but taboo in my university.

Lady Thatcher’s foreign policy initiatives were not to everyone’s liking. As far as I could see, the Foreign Office had no desire to rock the boat when it came to the post-war division of Europe; it was not until her minister for Eastern Europe, Malcolm Rifkind, visited the grave of the martyred Father Popiełuszko, that any official recognition was extended to the Polish opposition, and Rifkind’s gesture was not, I believe, sanctioned by the Foreign Office. But afterwards everything in Poland changed. The point had been made that the Communist Party was not the legitimate government of Poland, and that the ground must now be prepared for its successor.

Likewise, when it came to dealing with international terrorism, the British establishment took radically against Thatcher’s instinct, which was not to negotiate, but to punish. When, following proof of Syrian involvement in the attempt to blow up an El-Al air-liner flying from Heathrow, she broke off diplomatic relations with Syria, our ex-ambassador to that country, speaking for the Foreign Office establishment, publicly condemned the move as exactly the wrong way to deal with the nice President Hafez el-Assad. I happened to be in Lebanon at the time, when Syrian troops were fomenting civil war on the pretence of containing it, and our leftist journalists were making propaganda on behalf of Assad. Almost everyone I met told me that, thanks to Mrs Thatcher, they had experienced a moment of hope – a moment when it was possible to believe that their fragile democracy would not after all be sacrificed to the mad ambitions of the Assad family. It was none of Lady Thatcher’s doing that their hopes were to be dashed.

Looking back on it I should say that Thatcher’s greatest legacy was to have placed the nation and the national interest at the centre of politics. She never succeeded in her most important task, which was to negotiate the return of our sovereignty from Europe. I suspect that she did not see clearly enough that the European process, as constituted by the Treaties, authorizes the unresisted conquest of our country and the confiscation of our national assets. In the anxiety that this thought arouses in me I can only regret, for the thousandth time, that she was finally rejected by the Party whose fortunes she revived. Why did it happen?

Of course she was confrontational, she made enemies in places where she might have made friends. By threatening the culture of state dependency she rocked the Establishment that had been built on it: the BBC, the universities, the schools, the socialist quangos, the welfare services, the vast heap of civil servants. But why was she rejected by the Tory Party? I am reminded of the Athenian general Themistocles. It was he who had created the Athenian navy, held the Persians at Artemisium and finally defeated them at Salamis. It was he who had fortified Athens and made it the most prosperous city of the Aegean. But in 471 BC he was ostracized and sent into exile. His work was continued by Pericles, (without whose energy and public spirit the democratic traditions of Athens would certainly have been destroyed). But Pericles also was driven from office, tried on trumped-up charges and threatened with exile.

It seems that democracies have a natural tendency to turn against their saviours. It happened to Winston Churchill. It happened to Charles de Gaulle, and it happened to Margaret Thatcher. It was not the faults of those great leaders that caused their downfall but their virtues. Thatcher, like Themistocles, was overthrown by the resentment of her inferiors. For in a democracy, such people have power. Now that she has gone from us, however, and no longer poses a threat to all the ambitions that her presence once obstructed, she will surely be acknowledged, even by those who conspired to remove her, as the greatest woman in British politics since Queen Elizabeth the First.

Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.