Is Theresa May The True Heir To Mrs Thatcher?
The new Prime Minister has much more in common with the Iron Lady than is generally believed — and may have to fight similar battles
Theresa May and I are what we are because of Margaret Thatcher. For us both, the 1980s were our formative years, after grammar school and Oxford in the late 1970s. In my case, I saw just enough of Eton (where I was allowed to sit in on a few Oxbridge history classes) to become aware of how much some of my public school contemporaries looked down on grammar school boys and girls. Though our politics were very different in those days, our views have largely converged in the meantime. She seems to have already been blessed with a confidence I could then only dream of, and which has carried her all the way to Downing Street.
Yet there has been a concerted attempt to define Mrs May and her government in contrast to the Iron Lady. The same attempt has been made with almost every Tory leader since 1990, with the exception of Iain Duncan Smith; but in the case of David Cameron it was certainly true. He was never comfortable with Mrs Thatcher’s legacy and her admirers generally distrusted him. That is not the case with Theresa May. She will have no truck with redefining herself as a “liberal Conservative”, as Mr Cameron liked to style himself; still less does she feel the need to flatter or toady to the liberal Left. As one loyal friend and disciple of Lady Thatcher put it to me: “Mrs May is just a proper Conservative, plain and simple. And none the worse for that.”
In presenting Theresa May as the antithesis of Margaret Thatcher, critics point to her demands for a “more strategic role” for the state, for stricter rules to govern corporate conduct, or her rhetoric about the Conservatives as the “workers’ party”. These and other policies are depicted as a break with the Thatcherite mantra of rolling back the creeping socialism of the postwar era. Yet Mrs Thatcher unhesitatingly deployed state power whenever she found it necessary and was unsparing in her hostility to corporatists, rent-seekers and monopolists. She would have agreed with Mrs May’s determination to curb predatory capitalists who cripple companies with debts, offload them and leave the taxpayer to pick up the tab for pensions or welfare benefits. One of the functions of the market is to redirect scarce resources that have been misallocated — in other words, to separate fools from their money by legal means.
None of Mrs May’s policies thus far would have seemed alien to Mrs Thatcher, not even her proposals to control and reduce immigration. Much like Mrs May, Mrs Thatcher was denounced for insisting on tight controls on migration, and even using the word “swamped”. Unlike other prime ministers, before and since, she was averse to bailing out obsolescent industries or imprudent financiers. She had plenty of sympathy for employees, consumers, taxpayers, small shareholders and savers who were hit by misfortunes over which they had little or no control, but none for the shysters, sharks and charlatans who shirked their responsibilities in the upper echelons of public or private hierarchies.
Mrs May shares the same instinct: she sides with the little people who often struggle to survive in a global marketplace. Like Mrs Thatcher, she believes in a property-owning democracy, a nation in which hard work and solid achievement, rather than slick presentation or nifty networking, are rewarded. Like Mrs Thatcher, her parents were too poor to pay school fees. She rose by her own efforts and would like a younger generation to have the same opportunities — hence her decision to lift the ban on academic selection in state schools. She is on the side of people like herself, swots and strivers, not the silver-tongued and silver-spooned cliques who flourished in (and ultimately doomed) the Cameron era. She is a Roundhead, not a Cavalier — no kind of Wet and emphatically not a Cameroon. The last of the Wets, Kenneth Clarke, illustrates the point: his description of Mrs May as “a bloody difficult woman” could equally have been said of Mrs Thatcher. Indeed, it frequently was by the same sort of people; but from anybody else it would have been a back-handed compliment. It is true that Mrs Thatcher could not do without public-school patricians and she kept lots of them in her cabinets; so has Mrs May. Yet just as it fell to the former to bring an end to a certain kind of Whiggish Ascendancy, that of the Wets, so it has been Mrs May’s function to finish off another set of Whigs, that of the Cameroons. There is indeed a good deal of Manchester liberalism in these two women — both had strong fathers who had not always leaned to the Right — but Margaret Roberts and Theresa Brasier were and are natural Tories.
My purpose in this essay is to remind the reader of what Mrs Thatcher stood for, which helps to explain why Mrs May should not apologise for assuming the mantle of her great predecessor. I am certainly not suggesting that Mrs Thatcher or her legacy are above criticism, nor that it is necessarily straightforward to apply the lessons of the 1980s more than a quarter of a century later. Nobody supposes that Theresa May, who has already demonstrated that she is her own woman, could conceivably feel inclined to follow slavishly the example of Britain’s only other female prime minister. But I hope that the accident of her sex may save Mrs May from listening to those who are still in denial about the vital relevance of that example to her own predicament. Both in style and in substance, Mrs Thatcher is the only possible role model for the leader of Britain’s first post-Brexit government.
Yet Margaret Thatcher is, of course, inimitable. In every way, she was sui generis. Unique to her time and place, the fading glory of postwar Britain, the girl from Grantham possessed both the virtues and the limitations of her historical context. Her ideas, her values, her policies cannot easily be transplanted and applied today because they too are products of her age. Indeed, it is sometimes hard to discern the personality behind the myth. To paraphrase W.H. Auden on Sigmund Freud, to us she is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion. The mighty legacy of Thatcherism obscures the real Margaret Thatcher.
Yet a great leader is more than the sum of her parts, and Mrs Thatcher’s example of leadership does transcend the predicament that brought her into play. More than a quarter of a century after she left office, and three years after her death, the Thatcher project remains unfinished but still highly relevant. As in the 1970s and ’80s, post-Brexit Britain faces a crisis of confidence. Predictions of decline — economic, social and cultural — abound; domestic problems seem intractable; our global prestige is at a low ebb. All this would be familiar to Mrs Thatcher. Indeed, the pathologies she confronted were very much worse than those now facing Mrs May. The “British disease” that took hold during the years when she rose to power, culminating in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, included rampant inflation, ubiquitous strikes by overmighty unions, a weak economy dominated by nationalised industries whose losses were subsidised by draconian taxes, while political paralysis prevented anything being done to reform a sclerotic society mired in pessimism.
How, then, did she go about tackling this malaise? First, by developing economic policies that went to the heart of the problems besetting Britain: a Medium Term Financial Strategy to control the money supply and bring down inflation; legal reforms to end injustices such as the closed shop and flying pickets, ensuring that strikes could only be called by democratic procedures and conducted without intimidation; opening up the economy to competition and entrepreneurship by abolishing exchange controls, regulatory and fiscal reform and above all by privatising the nationalised behemoths. Second, she transformed the mood of despair into one of hope, by breaking the Left’s monopoly of moral virtue and liberating creative forces suppressed by big government. Third, she cultivated a distinctive leadership style which was profoundly rooted in her background but which does have wider application.
What was so distinctive about this Thatcherite leadership and how successful was it? She was utterly single-minded about her ends — “there is no alternative” — though she could be quite pragmatic about her means. There was something quasi-religious about her political beliefs. She divided colleagues as well as opponents into friends and foes, saints and sinners. Like Mrs May, she had a tight-knit circle of trusties. Intensely loyal to her allies, she could be pitiless towards her enemies. But there was no guile or deception about her methods; so transparent, indeed, were her motives that she found difficulty in fathoming those who were more underhand or duplicitous.
Some disapproved of her compromises with the establishment — her voice, shorn of its regional accent by elocution lessons; her conventionally middle-class dress and hairstyle, professionally maintained on a daily basis. But she never belonged to the establishment and no jibe was more likely to boomerang than any suggestion that she was privileged. When, during the Conservative leadership contest in January 1975, she was ridiculed in the Commons by Labour’s erudite and urbane intellectual bruiser, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey, as “La Pasionaria of privilege”, she retorted fiercely: “Some Chancellors are macro-economic, some chancellors are fiscal but this one is plain cheap.”
As one of her politician biographers, Kwasi Kwarteng, points out, her reply was much less witty than Healey’s insult, mocking the provincial Tory woman by invoking the Communist heroine of the Spanish Civil War. But “she wasn’t going to be pushed around by clever, older, more culturally sophisticated men.” Soon after she defeated former Prime Minister Edward Heath to become Tory leader, she told an interviewer: “Forget that I’m a woman. Forget the accusations that I am a right-winger defending privilege. I had precious little privilege in my early days.”
Some, at least, of these older, more sophisticated men were forced to concede that Margaret Thatcher’s conviction politics and bold leadership were a new force to be reckoned with. Listen to one of her bitterest political opponents, the standard-bearer of the Labour Left, Tony Benn, writing in February 1982, after a visit to the United States, where his wife had been born: “Reagan has made a tremendous impact on American politics. He is not quite like Mrs Thatcher, because he presides like a monarch over American society, whereas she is a leader and a teacher of a much more formidable kind. They have both won the battle of ideas, because the old New Dealers capitulated as the Old Left did in Britain, but in the course of fighting against that old decaying corporatist, liberal, capitalist structure a great generation of really tough people was bred, and they are taking over and carrying through a counter-revolution. They are serious people to fight.” Fast forward eight years to 1990. Days after Mrs Thatcher’s resignation, Benn meets Henry Catto, the US Ambassador, recently appointed to London by George H.W. Bush, they compare notes about Reagan and Thatcher.
They agree that Reagan loves telling jokes and stories, while Mrs Thatcher never does either — despite the fact that jokes “lubricate” politics. Then Catto cites Isaiah Berlin’s famous contrast between the hedgehog and the fox. Reagan, they decide, was the fox, who knows many things, while Mrs Thatcher was the hedgehog, who knows (and is committed to) one thing. The trouble with this dichotomy, which goes back to the Greek poet Archilochus, is that it does not fit the Reagan-Thatcher relationship, which was an unusually close one. The two leaders had complementary, not contrasting, temperaments, and they both believed in much the same things: free markets, small government and national greatness. But Benn was prophetic to see both leaders as having made innumerable disciples who would perpetuate their ideas.
Margaret Thatcher, as she liked to remind those whom she suspected of patronising her, was born and lived above the shop. Though Napoleon dismissed the English as a nation of shopkeepers, he was not entirely wrong: we were and are. But when she entered politics, the young Margaret Roberts found the upper-class prejudice against trade to be a considerable obstacle. She revered her father, Alderman Roberts, whose grocery business had been so precarious during the Great Depression that it necessitated frugality even beyond that which might be expected from a Methodist lay preacher. There was, for example, no wireless in the household. How then did the young Margaret and her sister “listen in” to Winston Churchill’s wartime speeches, which certainly inspired her? We do not know, but we may assume that the family budget was even more tightly stretched by the arrival in 1938 of a Jewish refugee, Edith, who was the daughter of an Austrian banker.
It was the teenage Margaret who persuaded her father to offer her helpless penpal asylum. Though Edith eventually rejoined her family in Latin America, her descriptions of Nazi persecution made a lasting impression on Margaret, who retained a fierce love of the Jewish people as symbols of freedom. In later years, she would tell friends that saving Edith’s life was her best and most significant achievement. Her later bonds with her constituency in the heavily Jewish London suburb of Finchley, with her many Jewish friends and colleagues — at one stage she had six Jewish Cabinet ministers — and of course with Israel, demonstrate the depth of that love.
Even more significant, though, in the formation of her character were the biblical values she inherited from her upbringing. She invoked the prophets and patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible as often as the Gospels, and in later years showed a marked preference for taking advice from the Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, even though the Anglican Primate, as a decorated war veteran, belonged to that “greatest generation” for whom she had such deep respect. Lord Jakobovits (he was the first rabbi to receive a peerage) had been a refugee from Berlin and also served as rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York. He shared Mrs Thatcher’s broadly biblical outlook on politics and morality; in particular, he taught that the sanctity of life is an integral part of Jewish medical ethics. To say that Margaret Thatcher was the first British Prime Minister to profess a specifically Judaeo-Christian code of ethics might be an exaggeration, for Jewish moral ideas had been important in British debates at least since the early 17th century, exemplified by such titans as Cromwell and Churchill, not to mention Disraeli. But Mrs Thatcher was conscious of her debt to the Jewish tradition in a way that no other British statesman, before or since, has been.
That debt had a profound influence on her sense of justice. She felt a duty to speak out, to dissent from the consensus, to articulate the truth, however unwelcome it might be, which stood in sharp contrast to the educated Englishman’s tendency to brush inconvenient facts under the carpet and to avoid embarrassment at all costs. How far this cussedness, this contrarian conviction of the absolute obligation to pursue the path of righteousness, whatever the cost, was an Evangelical or a Jewish characteristic, or whether it also had to do with a paternal example that gave her the confidence to overcome class and gender barriers, is a matter of opinion. But the potent combination of biblical values, hard work and free thinking sufficed to launch the grocer’s daughter on a career that took her from scholarship girl to professional woman in short order. The parallels with Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter, are too obvious to need underlining — even if her Anglicanism is as high as Mrs Thatcher’s was low.
Grantham’s most famous son was Isaac Newton, and Miss Roberts not only read Chemistry at Oxford but kept up her scientific interests even later in life when she had switched careers, first to the law and then to politics. All her life, she insisted that her training as a “sceptical chemist” not only enabled her to form an independent view when experts tried to blind her with science, but also in some sense kept her feet firmly on the ground. Compared with her political contemporaries, almost all of whom had degrees in the humanities, Margaret Thatcher proudly proclaimed the solid virtues of empirical, practical, Anglo-Saxon common sense.
What, though, gave this outwardly unremarkable young woman the confidence, courage and sense of mission that carried her all the way to Downing Street and beyond? She had none of the monstrous egotism that manifestly drives most politicians most of the time. Modesty is such an attractive quality in public life precisely because it is so rare, and she had it written all over her. Her rivals might hint that she was so modest because had much to be modest about, but in fact her abilities became obvious quite early and she was not ashamed to assert herself. Whether her lack of pomposity had something to do with her femininity, I shall leave an open question; but it certainly struck everyone who met her in the early days of her leadership. By the time she left office, she had inevitably acquired the airs and graces of the grande dame; but even then she never let her staff feel looked down on. Some who suffer the snobbishness of others later become snobs themselves; not Mrs Thatcher. True, she did become grand, occasionally even grandiloquent (“We have become a grandmother”), but she never lost her essential humility.
Her worst fault in handling colleagues was the result of never having served in the armed forces — unlike almost all of her elders and betters. She never learnt the military convention that commanders must not humiliate officers in front of their colleagues and especially not in front of other ranks. Time and again she would berate senior ministers in the presence of their officials or political colleagues. And such slights were never forgiven. The most obvious example of this was the late Sir Geoffrey Howe, who was successively Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, and Leader of the House of Commons. Being attacked by Sir Geoffrey, jeered Denis Healey, “was like being savaged by a dead sheep”. His tentative, insipid manner, his pedantic, prosaic, prissy persona, his consensual modus operandi irritated Mrs Thatcher beyond endurance. For years, she endured him because she needed him. But with the growing success of the economic policies they had driven through together against opposition inside and outside the Cabinet, she needed him less.
As Foreign Secretary he thwarted her where possible, especially over Europe, while she often overruled or excluded him. On one occasion, she suggested that he might like to stay abroad for a period of months while she took over his job herself. Eventually, in 1989, she demoted him rather than sacking him. Her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, briefed journalists that his grand-sounding new title of Deputy Prime Minister was actually meaningless. When he resigned in November 1990, it was on the issue of a single European currency. Howe insisted that the government was not opposed in principle to participating in such a currency, but Mrs Thatcher told Parliament: “No, no, no.” After that final rift, Howe made sure that he dragged her down with him. His resignation statement, delivered from the back benches, electrified the House of Commons. He told them that “the time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.” This was an invitation to Michael Heseltine, who had been Mrs Thatcher’s bitter enemy, plotting against her ever since his resignation as Defence Secretary in 1986, to challenge the Prime Minister for the Conservative Party leadership.
Mention of Heseltine is a reminder of another possible weakness in the Thatcher model of leadership: as in the case of Howe, she was willing to wound but sometimes afraid to strike. She often hesitated before firing ministers who were incompetent, insubordinate or disloyal. Heseltine had been open in his insubordination long before the Westland crisis of 1986; during it he became disloyal too, by conducting a clandestine propaganda operation intended to undermine Mrs Thatcher’s leadership. When she refused to sack him, and her officials dragged her into dubious manoeuvres instead, Heseltine seized the moment and resigned in the middle of a Cabinet meeting. The impact was dramatic, and she found herself fighting for her political life. Unable to save her loyal colleague Leon Brittan, she faced a House of Commons, normally easy for her to manage, that had suddenly become dangerous. Cornered, she gave a good account of herself, but what saved her was not her own skill in debate so much as the inability of the blustering Leader of the Opposition, Neil Kinnock, to conduct a forensic deconstruction of her own position. Even much later in life, Mrs Thatcher hated that episode so much that she tried to relegate it to a footnote in her memoirs.
Margaret Thatcher was not superhuman; she too made mistakes. What made her leadership outstanding was the way she dealt with the inevitable consequences of human error and inhuman iniquity. The Falklands War arose from the failure to foresee that the Argentine dictatorship would risk everything on a reckless gamble by invading the British colony. That failure of intelligence was not fatal, but the moral consequences of failing to rise the occasion would have been. The Iron Lady could not have survived the revelation that she had feet of clay. There was no question of that, however. Mrs Thatcher instinctively knew what had to be done, and she did it, uniting the nation and ultimately persuading Britain’s allies by her strength of purpose. Looking back, it seems incredible that she saw it through despite the best efforts of American diplomacy, ably assisted by her own Foreign Office, to head off the conflict by brokering a messy compromise under the auspices of the UN. Once battle was joined, she was criticised for triumphalism and was never forgiven by some of her countrymen for enjoining them to “Rejoice!” What else, though, can a leader given the choice between war and humiliation do, other than to ensure that she emerges from the war victorious? Indeed, it was her experience of war that made her especially valuable and influential in the United States: first in winning the Cold War, by forcing the Soviet Union to admit defeat without a shot being fired, then in the Gulf War, where it fell to her to stiffen the resolve of President George H.W. Bush.
The Gulf War showed Mrs Thatcher’s leadership at its best. Like everyone else, she was taken by surprise by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. But once again, she showed her class by the way that she seized the day. She happened to be in America at the time, and so had an immediate meeting with the President. The two had not always seen eye to eye, particularly on German reunification, where Bush had pointedly ignored her opposition. Personally, they got on well enough, but the President was not inclined to indulge her tendency to monopolise the conversation, in contrast to his predecessor: Ronnie could listen to Margaret “go on and on” quite happily and frequently did.
But this time, the chemistry worked. Bush, whose first response to Saddam’s aggression was cautious, took heart from her insistence that he must resolve to eject Saddam from Kuwait. After their meeting, the administration began to sound more hawkish about military intervention. Both leaders later testified that this was not a radical shift from appeasement to resistance, but something more subtle. However, as the complications involved in gaining UN approval became clear, a real difference in approach became apparent. Mrs Thatcher’s experience in the Falklands had taught her to rely primarily on the right to self-defence, rather than any more specific UN resolutions. When the question of using force to stop Iraqi supply ships on the high seas arose, Mrs Thatcher’s advice to Bush was clear. Act swiftly and decisively. Don’t worry about the UN. The vital task was to keep the coalition together. “This is no time to go wobbly, George.”
That phrase has become one of her most famous, though she later insisted that it was never intended to suggest that George was going wobbly. However, in a deeper sense, it does epitomise two radically different approaches to international affairs. In the post-Cold War era, Bush proclaimed a “new world order”, in which conflicts would be resolved by global arbitration. Mrs Thatcher did not believe in this. She thought the new world order would soon turn out to be indistinguishable from the old world disorder. With hindsight, it is clear that she was right. Thatcherism was, in part, a sophisticated and largely successful approach to the newly globalised world that emerged in the 1980s. She embraced that interconnected world with enthusiasm and a determination to help shape the rules of the game, but she was under no illusions about the inevitability of new threats arising to democratic capitalism and to Western civilisation. Her biblical view of human nature, including a profound awareness of radical evil, saved her from the hubris of liberal thinkers who hailed the end of history. Mrs Thatcher never made the mistake of assuming that, as Hillary Clinton promised her husband Bill, political leaders could “take charge of the economy” and transform it.
It is above all for Margaret Thatcher’s approach to the economy, and specifically the balance between private and public ownership, that she remains so influential. Yet there was always more to Thatcherism than economics. Her great battles — with the unions, with the BBC, with the Church of England, with Europe, even with the Conservative Party — were the result of a whole attitude that put her on a collision course with the British establishment right from the start.
Monetarism was anathema, for example, to many of the Treasury economists with a Keynesian mindset that took a very strong moral objection to the ideas of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. The “Treasury view” was confronted and defeated in the struggle over the 1981 Budget, which revolved mainly around the control of inflation, money supply and interest rates — and the price to be paid in unemployment during the shake-out of the economy. The basic Thatcherite proposition — that, other things being equal, the private sector would always deliver better goods and services than the state — was seen by many Conservatives as well as those on the Left as outrageous: not merely a presumption, but presumptuous too. However, the popularity of the first privatisations — British Aerospace, Jaguar cars, British Telecom and British Gas, accompanied by the sale of government stakes in British Petroleum, British Airways, Rolls-Royce, British Airports Authority and many other firms — rapidly broke down resistance on the Right.
Not only did the unprecedented numbers of shareholders — some 2.3 million for BT alone — justify the policy from the aspect of popular capitalism, but the removal of the heavy burden of loss-making enterprises, such as British Leyland, enabled resources to be channelled into health, education and other social priorities. The Treasury found it easier to balance the budget as subsidies fell and receipts rose. By the time of her third election victory in 1987, total gross proceeds from privatisation exceeded £24 billion. In her last term, privatisation of electricity and water supplies more than doubled that figure. By the time she left office, privatisation was no longer automatically controversial. The Labour Party gradually dropped its promises to renationalise industries that were not only thriving in private ownership, but which were owned directly or indirectly by voters, pensioners and taxpayers. Not until Jeremy Corbyn, an unreconstructed Marxist, became Labour leader had it been necessary to win the argument for privatisation, which Mrs Thatcher won so decisively, all over again. This may be one of Mrs May’s most important tasks in the years ahead.
Under John Major, railways were also privatised — a process that had been prepared under the Thatcher governments by the sale of various subsidiary operations such as transport hotels, ferries, rail engineering and catering. Both national and municipal bus services were successfully privatised, albeit with subsidies for the latter. Nick Ridley, Mrs Thatcher’s close confidante and her boldest transport secretary, was eager to convert the railways into roads and thereby in effect privatise them. But the Prime Minister herself was wary of “a privatisation too far” and refused to rush into selling off the railways until a solution could be found that avoided monopolies and heavy subsidies. Subsequent history proved her right: the model adopted by the Major government split train companies from infrastructure, the latter remaining a private monopoly. This allowed train operators to make healthy profits and improve rolling stock as passenger numbers steadily rose. But the tracks were poorly maintained and, after a serious accident in 2000, state subsidies rose again. Apart from the banks that collapsed during the crisis of 2008 and were taken into temporary state ownership, the railways remain the only industry where it is conceivable that a reversal of privatisation might even be popular.
The partial failure of rail privatisation to achieve political irreversibility suggests that, from a political as well as an economic point of view, Mrs Thatcher was better at handling privatisation than her successors. The Cameron government’s recent mishandling of the steel industry, which Mrs Thatcher successfully privatised in 1988, shows how political meddling may persist long after the private sector has taken over responsibility. David Cameron, who was only a junior figure in the Conservative Research Department in the late 1980s, not only saddled the Tories with much of the blame for the collapse of the steel industry, but by proposing to reduce steelworkers’ pension liabilities as a sweetener to potential buyers, risked setting a precedent that will be seized on by other companies eager to escape their obligations to employees by reducing pension entitlements without consultation.
It is hard to imagine Mrs Thatcher ever being politically insensitive enough to put herself on the wrong side of pensioners in this way. She knew that the way to sell privatisation to the British people was to show them how it would work for them and their families, putting workers and customers ahead of bureaucrats and bosses. She cared much less about abstract economic or political theories than about the practical impact of policies on people. After all, her first privatisation was not of companies or corporations, but of public housing: the Right to Buy policy, forcing local councils to sell houses to their owners, transformed the nation’s attitude to home ownership. By 1985, owner-occupied housing had increased from a quarter to half of the total stock. Every homeowner was a potential shareholder, too. And the housing market was opened up to everybody, just as the private rented sector was deregulated sufficiently to provide competition. No prime minister before or since has really understood the point instinctively grasped by Mrs Thatcher: that the only way to make free market capitalism popular was to make everybody a capitalist, and the best way to do that was to enable them to own a major asset: their home. Like Mrs May, however, she did not approve of the irresponsible selling of mortgages or the incurring of unsustainable debts.
She also knew how to sell her ideas to the world. Why did Margaret Thatcher make privatisation her flagship policy, imitated ever since in almost every country apart from North Korea? Because she knew that democratic capitalism would only flourish if the government got out of the way. Reversing the steady increase in the size of the state was an explicit and overarching aim of Thatcherism, quite apart from any specific benefits that might flow from privatisation. One of the most improbable individuals ever to head her Downing Street policy unit, the writer Ferdinand Mount, wrote in 1986: “If this government has succeeded in its aim of halving the size of the state sector by the time of the next election, it will have done more to make us better governed than any other government in living memory.” While this boast was justified by the sale of most government-owned businesses it did not of course mean that the state as a whole necessarily shrank, because the retreat of government from “picking winners” in the economy was offset by the growth of the welfare state. Mrs Thatcher again understood instinctively that the exponential growth of rights and entitlements would pose a huge problem for future societies, consuming not only present growth but mortgaging the prosperity of future generations. Privatisation postulated a solution to problems that confronted every country in the West, and many elsewhere, by clearing the way for the free market to come up with a new post-industrial revolution, capable of generating wealth on the scale required to meet the exorbitant demands of top-heavy, ageing societies with unlimited and unfunded liabilities.
The digital age was taking off just as she left the political stage. Mrs Thatcher bequeathed a vision of individuals and families, firmly rooted in religious values, including a strong work ethic, but emancipated from the “nanny state” and capable of adapting to a much faster pace of change in a global economy. Britain’s comparative advantages in trade were enhanced by the flexibility and dynamism that privatisation hard-wired into the system. The spur of survival in a marketplace, as the arid complacencies of state monopoly and patronage evaporated, helped the City of London to make the most of Big Bang, the 1987 deregulation package which had a comparable impact in the financial service sector to privatisation in the industrial one. London became the world’s go-to consultancy in the post-Cold War bonanza with which capitalism celebrated its triumph. The populist, even plebeian appeal of Thatcherism had initially been alien to the City patricians no less than the country squirearchy, but by the 1990s the world was concentrating financial services with terrifying rapidity, and London — along with New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and later Shanghai — was in the premier league. The remarkable prosperity of the English-speaking parts of the West is, in great part, her legacy.
Thatcherism was never an ideology or a theory — and thus is not to be confused with libertarianism or “neoliberal” economics. It was, rather, what Michael Oakeshott called a disposition: a key to unlock the complexities of politics by examining the world through a particular moral prism. What its critics saw as crass materialism or philistine utilitarianism, reveals itself under closer examination — and with the benefit of hindsight — as something very much older, very individualist but also very moral and very British.
In an age when universities embraced a new scholasticism far more obscurantist than the medieval variety, Thatcherism took Occam’s Razor to the self-justifying rhetoric of illiberal liberalism. Her most notorious utterance — “There is no such thing as society” — is a case in point. She meant — and indeed explained with her usual blunt eloquence — that “there are individual men and women, and there are families”. To ignore or remove the responsibility of these individuals and families for their lives, in favour of an all-encompassing state, was to undermine morality itself. As Shirley Letwin concluded in The Anatomy of Thatcherism, which remains the best book on the subject, Thatcherism — despite its uniquely British, indeed English, provenance—had a moral message for the whole world: “A way of understanding the human world that does not require us to be either metaphysical dogmatists or nihilists, that offers no blueprints for what should be done in Britain or elsewhere, but that nevertheless enables us to discover within the historical world made by human beings firm criteria for distinguishing civilisation from barbarism.”
These “firm criteria” are the heart of the matter. Thatcherism, as Theresa May surely understands, is more than the idiosyncratic insights of a remarkable leader. It appeals to something deeply rooted in the best qualities in human nature: the need to be independent and self-reliant; to take responsibility for oneself and, if necessary, for others; to acquire and enjoy private property but be public-spirited in the use of it; to prefer generosity to guilt and enterprise to envy; to love one’s neighbour as oneself, but ensure that one has the means to make love mean something in a wicked world. “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions,” Mrs Thatcher told an interviewer in 1986. “He had money as well.” Her legacy is contested in part because she forced those in denial to face up to the practical implications of grim reality. That reality is one we still all face every time we pass a homeless beggar on the street, or see the evil consequences of pitiless doctrines that seek to destroy our way of life, or wrestle with moral dilemmas in our own personal predicaments.
Margaret Thatcher believed passionately that actions spoke louder than words; she was proud to have set in motion what Ferdinand Mount called “the decline of acceptable idleness”. But she also knew that actions generally evoke equal and opposite reactions. The Thatcherite revolution provoked a reaction across the Continent, a counter-revolution that threatened everything she had worked for. And so she denounced it, in words that echo down the years: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” Now that Brexit has given force to Mrs Thatcher’s “No”, it is Theresa May’s task to reverse that counter-revolution against liberty.
The Hegelian dialectic is thesis, antithesis, synthesis. There is no synthesis in the Thatcherite dialectic. “I fight on, I fight to win,” she declared, shortly before she resigned. But she never really accepted defeat: Thatcherism is, to paraphrase Clausewitz, a continuation of the war of ideas by each and every means. Her battle against the Marxist Left now has to be fought all over again. She never gave up, and neither should Theresa May.