The Secret to Margaret Thatcher's Success

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tags: conservatism, obituaries, United Kingdom, Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, British conservatism


Peter Dorey is Director of Postgraduate taught Studies at the Cardiff School of European Languages, Translation, and Politics at Cardiff University. He is a specialist in post-1945 British politics, and his latest book is "British Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality."

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The death of Margaret Thatcher, the former leader of British Conservative Party and Britain’s only female prime minister, will intensify the continuous debate over her legacy. No other modern British political leader has proved so controversial. She divided -- and continues to divide -- academic and public opinion more than any of her recent predecessors.

To her admirers and acolytes, Margaret Thatcher was a political hero, a courageous conviction politician who totally transformed Britain’s economy, politics, and society following the serious economic problems, industrial conflict, political paralysis and sense of social breakdown of the 1970s. To these avid admirers, she rolled back the frontiers of the state by returning many state-owned industries to the private sector; cut taxes; cut red-tape and bureaucracy; partially privatized health care and education; eviscerated the power of Britain’s labor unions; strengthened law and order; extended home ownership; promoted traditional morality and “Victorian values”; boldly defended Britain’s interests in international affairs; strengthened the special relationship with the United States, particularly through her close personal and ideological affinity with Ronald Reagan, and thereby precipitated the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.

In short, Margaret Thatcher’s many admirers credit her with having eliminated socialism from Britain, and thus of having replaced state-imposed collectivism with a new culture of sturdy individualism and entrepreneurship.

To her critics and detractors, Margaret Thatcher promoted the interests of the rich against the poor and consciously reversed decades of gradual progress towards a fairer and more humane society. She promoted and pursued tax cuts which were primarily orientated towards the rich, while any small gains enjoyed by the lower-paid were obviated by increases in indirect and “regressive” taxes; She reduced workers’ rights while increasing employers’ power; encouraged huge salaries for “the bosses” as a reward for hard work, while condemning the “greed” of ordinary workers whenever they asked for a pay increase; promoted a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor, while depicting many of the unemployed as lazy “scroungers” undeserving of support or sympathy. She also increased the power of the state in an increasingly authoritarian manner, via stronger policing and longer prison sentences, reducing civil liberties, and attacking institutions which were deemed to be bastions of left-wing or “progressive liberal” values.

In essence, Margaret Thatcher’s critics accuse her of promoting a selfish “greed is good” philosophy, whereby individuals were encouraged to pursue their own self-interest without any regard for anyone else, while companies aggressively pursued profits without any wider sense of corporate or social responsibility. As a consequence, her critics claim, Margaret Thatcher created a vulgar culture in which people knew the price of everything and the value of nothing; everything was commodified and commercialized, and no activity was deemed worthy unless it made money.

Rather than either evaluating the merits of these deeply divergent perspectives -- an inherently subjective and value-laden exercise -- I shall instead identify some of the more notable aspects of her personal background and style of leadership, and the context of the 1970s, for these will help us to understand how she (or, rather, the Conservative governments which she led) was able to pursue so many controversial policies, some of which were not always enthusiastically supported by some of her own colleagues. By approaching her on that basis, we can develop a better perspective on both her life and her political legacy.

First, Margaret Thatcher was not part of the traditional Conservative establishment; she had not been born in to aristocratic wealth or privilege, and did not attend one of Britain’s top public (i.e., private, fee-paying) schools, prior to embarking upon a political career. On the contrary, she came from an archetypal petit-bourgeois, the daughter of a shopkeeper in a market town, in eastern England, whence she attended a grammar school prior to going to Oxford University. Her background profoundly inculcated her with the values of deferred gratification, individualism, independence, hard work, self-help, self-reliance and sobriety.

This had two important consequences for her political career. Firstly, like many Conservatives from similar lower-middle-class social backgrounds who climbed the “greasy pole” of British politics (such as her close colleague, Norman Tebbit), there was little sympathy for those who did not become successful. Thatcher believed that Britain was a meritocracy, in which success was the product and deserved reward of middle-class values. By implication, most of those who did not achieve success were individuals who had either failed to work hard, had been irresponsible, or had made bad decisions. Whatever the reason, these “failures” deserved neither pity nor to be supported by a generous welfare state -- this would merely reward people for their indolence and irresponsibility. Clearly, Thatcher completely rejected the notion of noblesse oblige which many of her more upper-class Conservative predecessors had subscribed to, entailing a sense of duty and compassion for the welfare of the poor. Thatcher denounced this as “bourgeois guilt.”

The second consequence of Thatcher’s background was that it enabled her directly to address the concerns of ordinary British people. This was to form the basis of her subsequent populist style of leadership and oratory, whereby she depicted herself as “out there” with the silent majority of hard-working, decent, honest, sensible British people against an out-of-touch, self-serving, paternalistic and patronizing establishment which had blithely presided over decades of decline through fear of taking tough decision. She was therefore able to articulate the anxieties and aspirations of the “silent majority”: their anger at trade union militancy; their demand for a tougher penal policy; their fears about being “swamped” (Thatcher’s own word) by immigrants, among other concerns.

Second, Thatcher was very much a product of her time, for the 1970s provided an opportune historical juncture for a leader who possessed her qualities. In other words, she was in the right place at the right time. The failures of the 1970-74 Conservative government led by Ted Heath, the apparent ideological exhaustion of social democracy (even if the Left called it a “crisis of capitalism”), the increasing economic problems engulfing the weak and increasingly ideologically divided Labour government, high inflation, increasing unemployment, rising crime, family breakdown, and a succession of strikes by trade unions, all combined to create a febrile climate of Britain in acute crisis. The old politics no longer seemed to be effective -- indeed, the Left was largely blamed for the apparent crisis -- and many people were hankering for new policies and a more resolute political leadership.
Third, Margaret Thatcher’s gut instincts about the policies which Britain needed were not only shaped by her personal background, but by her immersion in the intellectual ideas of prominent “New Right” figures such as the political philosopher Friedrich Hayek and the economist Milton Friedman.

Their arguments and ideas struck a deep chord with Thatcher, for they simultaneously offered an intellectual account of why Britain was experiencing a crisis and offered clear guidance on how to solve it. Coupled with a plethora of New Right think tanks which burgeoned in the 1970s, most notably the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies (which Thatcher herself co-founded in 1974) and the Institute of Economic Affairs (albeit actually formed in 1955), she was thus able to imbue her arguments and policy proposals with a strong sense of intellectual coherence, political credibility and philosophical rationality.

This was significant in two ways. Firstly, the Conservative Party had hitherto eschewed “ideology,” claiming instead that Conservatism was merely a philosophy derived from custom, experience, incremental and organic change, intuition, tradition, and the accumulated wisdom of the past. Conservatives did not believe that a better society could be established on the basis of abstract ideas and intellectual theories; such a teleological or Enlightenment conception of societal progress or human emancipation was firmly rejected, not least because of the core Conservative belief in the imperfectability of human nature itself.

Yet Margaret Thatcher did seek to imbue the Conservative Party with an ideology, both to give intellectual credence to her views, but also inter alia to attack the Left. Prior to becoming prime minister, she had claimed that “We must have an ideology’”with which to defeat the Left in a battle of ideas.

The second reason why Margaret Thatcher’s embracing of ideology -- the fact that the term Thatcherism been widely used by her supporters and detractors alike since the 1980s is itself highly noteworthy -- was so significant was that it made it difficult for her critics inside the Conservative Party to argue against her. Those Conservatives who had always prided themselves on their eschewal of ideology struggled to advance an alternative set of philosophic arguments or policies, and often found themselves either urging her to proceed more carefully and cautiously, or hankering for a return to a pre-Thatcher version of Conservatism. Of course, in the case of the latter, Margaret Thatcher could retort that this approach had prevailed from 1945 to 1979, and had clearly and disastrously failed; those Conservatives who nonetheless urged a return to pre-1979 Conservatism were thus derided as “yesterday’s men” or the “guilty men” who had precipitated, along with Labour governments, the crises of the 1970s. They were thus viewed as cowards and appeasers in the Conservative Party, and treated with contempt and impatience by Margaret Thatcher.

A fourth aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s political leadership which is highly significant is the style of her premiership, and her management of the Cabinet. It is not true that over time, Margaret Thatcher appointed a Cabinet of fellow Thatcherites. As Professor Philip Norton has shown (in a superb article in the journal Parliamentary Affairs, January 1990), at the end of the 1980s, only 19 percent of the parliamentary Conservative Party could be classified as fully-fledged Thatcherites. Of the remainder of the Party, 18 percent were outright critics of Thatcher(ism) -- generally on the left or “One Nation” wing of the Conservative Party -- while most of the rest were ‘loyalists’, not to Thatcherism per se (even though they often agreed with individual policies), but to Margaret Thatcher as a politically successful leader. In other words, had another Conservative led the Party and won general elections during the 1980s, they too would probably have enjoyed “conditional” support from the bulk of Conservative MPs.

However, what further strengthened Margaret Thatcher’s influence over the Conservative Party, in addition to the aforementioned ideological coherence and conviction, was her allocation of ministerial portfolios. In essence, she tended to award the key economic ministries to fellow Thatcherites, or at least those she could trust, whilst often giving non-Thatcherites less important (in her eyes) Cabinet positions.

A fifth salient feature of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was the pragmatic manner in which many key policies were actually pursued. Ideologue she may have been, with a clear vision of the new Britain she wished to create from the ruins of social democracy, but her practical approach was often surprisingly incremental. Many of her key policies were pursued either on a step-by-step basis, as was the case with trade union reform, or in her second (1983-87) and third (1987-1990) terms as prime minister, most notably the major privatizations of state-owned industries, and the “marketization” of both the education system and the National Health Service. She was astute enough to realise that pursuing reforms on such a basis was less likely to prompt effective opposition than a “big bang” approach. Moreover, such an approach enabled a new tranche of similar policies and reforms to be offered in the subsequent Conservative election manifesto, and thus offer voters a strong incentive to re-elect her governments, while also reassuring supporters that she and her ministers were not “running out of steam.”

The sixth and final noteworthy aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was her ability to manage crises. The former Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was one asked what caused him most anxiety and sleepless nights, to which he is reported to have replied “events, dear boy, events.” Yet Thatcher was faced with a series of events which could have proved fatal, but which she handled with sufficient skill and steadfastness to emerge victorious. The two most notable, of course, were her response to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands Islands in 1982, and the defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike; in effect, her Argentine and trade union opponents, respectively, underestimated Thatcher’s determination and resolve to defeat them.

Meanwhile, throughout much of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was not faced with a credible or effective opposition. The Labour Party was widely viewed as too left-wing, its share of the vote in the 1983 election plummeting to 27 percent. In response to Labour’s post-1979 lurch to the left, a group of right-wing Labour MPs broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). This obtained 25 percent of the vote in 1983, which effectively meant that electorally, the non-Conservative vote was split down the middle, enabling the Thatcher government to be re-elected with a 144-seat majority in the House of Commons, albeit on 44 percent of the vote.

Eventually, however, Thatcher succumbed to the same characteristic that tends to affect many long-serving political leaders: hubris. Apparently convinced of her own political infallibility and the apparent incontrovertible wisdom of her policies, she began to alienate some of her own loyal colleagues. Her hostile views towards European unity caused increasing consternation among some senior ministers, while her insistence on implementing the hated poll tax caused revulsion among many Conservatives, both in the Party and the country in general. Indeed, the poll tax precipitated plummeting opinion poll ratings, accompanied by several by-election defeats in formerly solid Conservative constituencies.

This hubris also resulted in a public falling out with some of her hitherto closest ministerial colleagues, two of the most prominent being the resignation of Chancellor Nigel Lawson in 1989, followed by the resignation of former chancellor and foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, in the fall of 1990. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one close and senior Cabinet colleague might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose two in quick succession begins to look like carelessness. It was Howe’s resignation that actually precipitated (as he intended) the leadership challenge which finally resulted in Thatcher’s resignation as Conservative Party leader and prime minister.   

Yet twenty-three years later, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is still very strong. Neo-liberal economics seem to be hegemonic, to the extent that in Britain at least, the post-2008 recession is widely viewed, not as evidence of the failings or limits of deregulation and the free market, but as evidence of the need to reduce further the role of the state, reduce the size of the public sector and public expenditure, cut taxes on businesses and the wealthy while cutting welfare for the poor, and further weaken employment protection in the name of “labour market flexibility.” In other words, Thatcherism continues to provide much of the intellectual framework and public discourse within which British politics is conducted today. Margaret Thatcher is dead, but her views and values, for better or worse, for good or bad, are very much still alive. Her spirit lives on.

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