MARGARET HILDA THATCHER, 1925-2013: REQUIESCANT IN PACE
"Margaret Thatcher was the most important peacetime prime minister of the UK since the late 19th century. She transformed the Conservative party and British politics, overturning the ruling assumptions about the relationship between the state and the market. Thatcher was also a towering figure on the global stage. Her close ideological connection with US President Ronald Reagan helped give her a global role unlikely ever again to be occupied by a British politician. True believers view her as a Saint Joan of free markets, dedicated to rolling back the state in all its dimensions. In reality, however, Thatcher was a pragmatic politician who showed little interest in embarking on politically suicidal attempts to demolish pillars of the welfare state, such as the National Health Service. Under her governments, public spending never fell below 39 per cent of gross domestic product. Nevertheless, hers was a transformational premiership. The legacies of Thatcher’s governments include liberalisation of exchange controls, a huge cut in top income tax rates, liberalisation of labour markets, transformation of the legal position of trade unions and defeat of militant organised labour, notably in the miners’ strike of 1984-85, sale of a large part of the council housing stock, privatisation of most nationalised industries and the liberalisation of finance, including the “Big Bang” of 1986, which transformed the City of London into the world’s biggest international financial entrepôt. In macroeconomic policy, Thatcher’s governments started with monetarism and ended with a row over the role of exchange rates in monetary policy. But the rejection of Keynesian fiscal policy and the shift to relying on monetary policy, in its place, were cemented during her period in power. It was left to the incoming Labour government to take the logical step of making the Bank of England independent, in 1997. Thatcher also played a large role in Europe, contributing to launching the single market programme and the concomitant Single European Act, in 1986. She saw this as an attempt to export liberal economics to the rest of the European Community".Martin Wolf, "Thatcher: the great transformer." The Financial Times. 9 April 2013, in www.ft.com.
"Her impact while in office was less than only than that of Lloyd George and Churchill. Perhaps she was even their equal in this....'[she had] transformed the politics of Britain - indeed Britain itself - to an extent no other Government has achieved since the Attlee Government of 1945 to 1951....[which] set the political agenda for the next quarter century."Peter Hennessey. The Prime Minister: the office and its holders since 1945. (2000), pp. 435-436, 530. Margaret Thatcher will no doubt go down in history as one of the greatest British and indeed European leaders of the post-bellum years from 1945 to 1989. In that respect her true equals are not such ante-bellum political leaders as Churchill and David Lloyd George as Adenauer and General de Gaulle. And yet, like all four of the men mentioned above, Thatcher left the political stage in November 1990, as if not a 'failure', then with a sensation of not having quite achieved a total victory on the political stage. In this respect, she fulfills completely the truism enunciated by the late, great Enoch Powell in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain that:
"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs 1."In the case of Thatcher, it is readily apparent that the very traits which made her an almost unstoppable force of nature in the realm of politics, by definition also made her completely unable to abide by certain restraints that would have enabled her to remain in office for perhaps another two to five years. Indeed, a British political commentator once defined the essence of 'Thatcherism' as a 'curious mixture of spirit, realism, tantrums and not infrequent errors of political judgment' 2. It was the fact that she was completely unable to respond to the concept of the via media and some type of equilibrium which made her vulnerable to being toppled in what she later called (in a conversation with the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom no less) a 'constitutional coup' 3. It could be reasonably asked if her failure to recognize and abide by the above limitations made her a less than successful political leader than she could have been? The question answers itself. All one can say, for good and for ill, is that she succeeded in 'breaking the mold of British politics' and ending the post-war political regime which was begun by the Attlee Government of 1945. As per the more difficult question of whether she arrested the 'decline of Britain', the answer would be that if she did so, then the medicine that she employed stopped working sometime between 2005 and 2008. And that the 'shrinkage' in almost every sense of both Britain's economic clout and its military machine follows immediately from the failures of economic management that Thatcher's Socialist heirs, Blair and Brown, in addition to the current Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron can all be blamed for. Once again in this respect she is rather similar to both Adenauer and General de Gaulle, insofar as for all of their great and indeed at times tremendous political gifts, none could bring back the time when Europe was the political pace setter in world politics. Thatcher for all of her political vision, energy and gifts was no more able to restore the United Kingdom to the Great Power that it was circa 1955, than General de Gaulle make France the Great Power that it was circa 1935 or Adenauer make Germany the power that it was circa 1928. The march of time has inexorably been moving against such a 'restoration', however splendid such a restoration might indeed be. Of course for a lot of the British intelligentsia there was much, much more to Mrs. Thatcher and 'Thatcherism', than these cold-blooded evaluations that a historian might make. For many of say those perusing the bien-pensant Guardian, Observer or indeed the London Review of Books, Thatcherism was the embodiment of the petit-bourgeoisie in power. If not so much de facto, much less de jure, than stylistically and aesthetically. Indeed, notwithstanding his quite similar, grammar school, provincial, petit-bourgeois background, there was a world of difference between the style of say an Edward Heath (yachtsman and classical music conductor, or even an Enoch Powell (Cambridge classicist, translator and ex-academic) to the completely philistine, non-humanist, indeed scientist Thatcher (the only British Prime Minister to receive a degree in one of the sciences). And in all honesty many of the pronouncements made by the 'Iron-lady' during her years in power also left me cold if not worse. And there was much that was lost and kicked away in British life due to the triumph of 'Thatcherism'. For good or for ill. And personally, I infinitely would prefer as Prime Minister, someone with the Oxonian, high mandarin style of a Lord Salisbury, A. J. Balfour or even a Harold Macmillan to someone of Thatcher's ilk. However to make the historical essence of Thatcherism these more cultural aspects, would I believe be an erratum At least when one looks upon the totality of both the era and the person from a historical perspective. As my old maitre, the late Tony Judt, no friend to many of the changes brought about by Mrs. Thatcher, best expressed it in his book, Postwar:r
"It is sometimes suggested that Thatcher's role in this change has been exaggerated, that circumstances would have propelled Britain in a 'Thatcherite' direction in any event: that the post-war social pact was already running out of steam. Perhaps. But it is hard even in retrospect to see just who but Mrs. Thatcher could have performed the role of gravedigger. It is the sheer scale [italicized in the original] of the transformation she wrought, for good and ill, that has to be acknowledged. To anyone who had fallen asleep in England in 1978 and awoken twenty years later, their country would have seemed unfamiliar indeed: quite unlike its old self 4."1. Enoch Powell. Joseph Chamberlain. (1977), p. 151. 2. Geoffrey Smith, "The British Scene." Foreign Affairs (Summer 1986), p. 924. 3. Hennessy, op. cit., p. 398. 4. Tony Judt. Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945. (2005), p. 547.