Facing up to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher
Dr Stephen Davies Education Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs says remember the positives, acknowledge the negatives and move on.
Usually, when a politician dies many years after they left office we are reminded of Chesterton’s observation that the purpose of obituaries is to tell us people have died when none of us knew they were still alive. This is not the case with Margaret Thatcher. Even after being out of office for many years she remained a figure in the public consciousness and continued to arouse passionate feelings of both admiration and hostility. As the reactions to her passing show, she continues to divide feeling and opinion, in death as in life.
This reflects two basic facts about her. The first was the clarity of her position and underlying beliefs as a politician. She had strong and definite views and ideas that she argued for with a clarity unusual in today’s marketing driven politics. Everyone knew (or at least thought they knew) what she stood for and believed in. Even more importantly many of her most famous policies (such as selling council houses to tenants for example) came directly from her beliefs – this was not a matter of looking for a policy that would be popular or would win votes and adopting it for that reason. There was with Thatcher a strong perception that the policy of her governments was driven by and derived from principle, regardless of whether you agreed with those principles.
The second was the enormous impact she had. Unlike most politicians who accept the situation they inherit and make marginal changes, Thatcher brought about radical change and reshaped the political agenda. She transformed the Conservative Party but also changed the Labour Party as well. All kinds of details of daily life such as getting credit or a telephone or energy and water, were transformed by the programme of privatisation she introduced. The economic structure of the country was shifted dramatically by measures such as the abolition of exchange controls, the sweeping reform of labour relations law, dramatic reductions in direct taxation, and the reforms to employment and other regulations. Britain became a much more individualistic, open, entrepreneurial, and varied society – much less conservative in fact.
Of course the record was not all good – the one eyed hatred of many of her detractors should not lead us to become blind idolaters. In many cases there was a problem of inaction – land planning was left untouched, the welfare state actually expanded and there was only a limited reduction in the overall size of government. Given what her governments did do however we should not be too critical. More serious were things such as the dramatic centralisation of local government and the education curriculum, and the increasing domination of government by a ‘management’ culture. On issues such as civil liberties and gay rights her own libertarian instincts (she was an early supporter of the decriminalisation of gay sexual relations in 1966 for example) were overruled by the need to give succour to the socially conservative part of the electoral coalition she headed. (This was a case where the policies did not flow from conviction, which makes them all the more reprehensible).
However on balance we can say that she was a politician who had an unusual and lasting impact, at home and abroad. She brought about radical economic and social change, some of it unintended, and saved Britain from a severe decline that if left unchecked would have had very severe consequences. We should remember the positive regret the bad or mixed, and seek to move forward and build on her legacy.
Dr Steve Davies is Education Director at the IEA (http://www.iea.org.uk/). Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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