HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR
THE place is Britain; the year, 1978. It is the Winter of Discontent. Labour unrest has shut down public services, paralysing the nation for months on end. Rubbish is piled high on the street. The government been obliged to supplicate for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Soon the Soviet trade minister will tell his British counterpart, “We don’t want to increase our trade with you. Your goods are unreliable, you’re always on strike, you never deliver.”
A gray, timorous functionary is delivering a paper on economic policy to a conference of British conservatives. Britain, he argues, must take a pragmatic middle path. In the middle of his speech, Margaret Thatcher, leader of the opposition, interrupts. She stands up. She reaches into her briefcase, extracts a copy of The Constitution of Liberty, by Friedrich von Hayek, holds it up before the audience, then slams it on the table. “This,” she says, “is what we believe.”
What followed in Britain was a revolution.
Even among those most sympathetic to her, there is a tendency to place Thatcher’s extraordinary and unprecedented accomplishments in an endless stream of caveats – her accent was phony (it was); she was moralistic (she was); she was egotistical (she was); she left Britain divided (she did); she destroyed Britain’s coal mining communities (she did); she was a bad mother (who cares?). The caveats, even if true, are footnotes to the main point: Thatcher was among the most vigorous and disciplined enemies of socialism the world has known, a woman who permanently changed not only the course of British history but that of all history to a degree rivaled by no other woman, ever, and no other British figure in this century save Churchill. In the process she changed what we believed about women, power, and women in power permanently.
Thatcher matters now – or at least, her ideas and her legacy matter – as much as she did during her time in power. Now, because socialism has been buried prematurely. The appeal of socialism as a political program is and ever will be wide and seductive; it is a secular political movement that like fascism embodies the religious impulse, and is thus an ideology destined to rise again and again from the grave, skeletal claws outstretched and grasping for the instruments and subjects of labour.
Thatcher’s achievements are a great, breathing, living example of anti-socialist ideals in action, applied by singular force of will and applied to dramatic transformative effect. They function as proof that these ideals may be applied successfully, even in countries with a deeply entrenched socialist tradition. In the global battle between free enterprise and collectivism, no voice today is more compelling than Thatcher’s own.
She was animated by a set of distinct beliefs. They were relatively simple: She believed in privatisation, popular capitalism, free markets, property-ownership, monetarism, firm control over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, and individualism. She deplored socialism and considered welfare spending and collective bargaining to be forms of it. She particularly despised powerful trade unions. She was leery of international organisations. She saw nothing to admire in the Soviet Union, and not much to admire in any other country but America.
Achieving things that no woman before her had achieved, she simultaneously exploited every politically useful aspect of her femininity and turned every conventional expectation of women upside its head. She has thus passed into mythological status even before her death.
Every key Thatcherite victory in Britain inspired similar actions abroad. For example, it is well-known that Thatcher privatised large nationalised industries such as British Airlines, British Telecom, British Steel and British Gas. It is often unappreciated that this was the beginning of a global privatisation revolution, not just a British one. By end of the 1980s, and owing directly to Thatcher, more than 50 countries on every continent – the Philippines, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Turkey, New Zealand – had set in motion privatisation programs. Nominally socialist countries, ones that rejected any official discussion of privatisation, reduced their public sector covertly. Even the United States took its cues from Thatcher, rather than vice-versa, embarking in the wake of her success on schemes to denationalise public monopolies. Most importantly, Gorbachev’s perestroika policy was inspired by Thatcher’s reforms – this is, indeed, one of the many under-appreciated aspects of her role in bringing the Cold War to an end.
Since the beginning of the global financial conflict, the ideological battle she fought has been reawakened. Again, the world is asking: do free markets work? Do they produce societies that are in the most important senses better than those in which the state involves itself in economic planning and systematically redistributes wealth?
This question, even more than the divide between religion and secularism, will be the great fault line of the coming century. Thus Thatcher’s ideas and personality will assume an even greater significance with time. Recognising what she achieved in Britain – and coldly appraising the cost of her victories – is as essential for our generation as for hers.
Claire Berlinski is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. The second edition is published on 24 November by Basic Books, £11.99.