It was a befitting send-off for the greatest peacetime Prime Minister of the twentieth century. The establishment and the great and the good were there for Thatcher, inside St Paul’s – but so were the people, her people, outside in the streets, clapping as she passed them and launching into impromptu and unexpected cheering when her flag-draped coffin finally left on its final journey.
Almost everything was poignant in its symbolism: the fact that the funeral took place in an ancient building surrounded by modern offices made possible by the economic reforms she unleashed; that her grand-daughter delivered a brilliant reading in her American accent, suggesting intriguing dynastic possibilities; and that her death, just like her time in office, has prompted an avalanche of political debate and introspection of a far more sophisticated variety than the trivia that passes for politics in this country these days.
For the first time that I can ever remember, a Church of England bishop delivered a brilliant, pitch-perfect address with no hint of cant. It rightly wasn’t a eulogy but it managed to explain the correct context of Thatcher’s famous remarks on society, inevitably quoted out of context by dishonest enemies. After years of seeing crypto-Marxist churchmen deliberately distort what the Iron Lady had to say on this, wrongly claiming that Thatcher was an atomist who believed that individuals could exist in a vacuum, rather than as part of a co-dependent extended order, it was fantastic to see a leading religious figure actually explain her true position.
The Bishop of London’s address is reproduced on p26; but here, for those who are unaware of her exact words, is what Thatcher actually said on society and people’s responsibilities to others in an interview in Woman’s Own in October 1987. Here are the relevant quotes from the transcript of Thatcher’s interview, as spoken verbatim by her to a journalist:
“We have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation… If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
This demonstrates the depth of Thatcher’s philosophy, which is steeped in genuine classical liberalism. She believed individuals had a responsibility first to help themselves and their families, and then to extend conditional assistance to others in need. What she didn’t want was for everybody to simply try and get the state, and therefore other people, to sort out problems and especially pick up the bill. She was a true individualist, in the tradition of John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek, and therefore understood the critical difference between society and state, between voluntary action and coerced action.
Thatcher herself was a great donor to charity, as was her beloved husband, Sir Denis; one of her aims was to unleash in Britain the sort of philanthropy we see in the US. Like much else about her revolution, that is a work that is still in progress. But it is clear that David Cameron’s big society is a dumbed-down, corrupted and not especially well thought-through version of this Thatcherite wisdom, a tragically muddled variation on a brilliant theme.
Thatcher’s funeral marks the end of a political era – not just for the Tory party, but also for the centre-left, which was forced to embrace Blairism to survive in a country changed by Thatcherism. Her death ought to give all parties, but especially David Cameron’s, an opportunity to reflect on what reforms they believe today’s Britain needs if it is to tackle its many problems, kick-start its economy and retain its status and prosperity over the coming decades.
Thatcher fought so many battles at the same time that many areas remain unreformed, including education, welfare, health and family policy, and she went down a blind alley embracing Brussels, something she subsequently regretted. Today’s UK also suffers from a far more complex tax system than in her day, and state ownership of industry has been replaced by extreme amounts of regulation and controls.
The country is ripe for another revolution, one that unfortunately this coalition will never deliver. Britain needs a new Thatcher for the 21st century – but who will it be?
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