COULD it be, that even in death, Margaret Thatcher will once again transform British politics? How? Consider the following: at last year’s party conferences, two particular words were never mentioned by any of the main party leaders. David Cameron and George Osborne didn’t mention them in their speeches. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were silent on them at the Labour party conference. And so were Nick Clegg and Vince Cable (Cable did mention one of them, but only as a throwaway line at the very end of his speech).
The two words which had dropped out of the British political lexicon were “freedom” and “liberty”. It seems the membership of today’s political class is uncomfortable with them, maybe even with the very concept itself. Yet it is impossible to read or listen to any of Thatcher’s great speeches without hearing how freedom (often suffixed with “within the rule of law” to distinguish it from pure libertarianism) was the guiding principle which underlay her convictions, her politics and ultimately her policies. Look at the list of her extraordinary achievements, and how at their core they are all guided by the sense of individual liberty. The sale of council houses to their tenants set families free from living in state-owned state-managed property. Privatisation gave people the freedom to own shares in formerly nationalised industries. The abolition of exchange rate controls gave individuals the right to buy their own currency when they were travelling outside the country (remember that, in 1979, if you were going abroad, you had to take your passport to the bank to have it stamped to ensure you did not exceed the £50 limit you were allowed to exchange). Big Bang destroyed the old schoolboy network in the City, freeing up opportunities for hundreds of thousands of talented individuals. Thatcher’s trade union reforms ended the closed shop and secondary picketing, two monstrous infringements on liberty. And cutting the top rate of tax from 83 per cent to 60 per cent and then 40 per cent gave people the basic freedom to spend their own money as they, and not the state, wished.
The list goes on. Thatcher’s deep commitment to liberty informed her hostility to the Soviet bloc, her quick and continuing support for Lech Wałęsa and Solidarność in Poland, her increasing Euroscepticism (“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level”) and above all the strength of the Special Relationship while she and Ronald Reagan were both in office.
Bear in mind this commitment to liberty (often balanced with an equal commitment to individual responsibility) and you can immediately answer any political question which starts: “What would Thatcher do about…” Media regulation as proposed by Lord Leveson? No. A state which consumes 50 per cent of national output? No again. A bill like the Justice and Security Bill, which proposes secret courts where the government can present its evidence in a secret session in the absence of the other party, his or her lawyers, the press and the public? Three times no.
The two words had dropped out of the political lexicon, our politicians left uncomfortable by them
Could this be about to change? In so many of the tributes paid to Thatcher over the last week, freedom has been recognised as the driving force behind much of what she achieved. President Obama got it right when he said that Thatcher was “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”. As did Angela Merkel when she said: “The freedom of the individual was at the centre of her beliefs, so she recognised very early the power of the movements for freedom in Eastern Europe.”
The Economist was also right to say that: “the essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom”. And although in his immediate response to the news of Thatcher’s death, the Prime Minister made no mention of liberty or freedom, he corrected this in his tribute in the House of Commons later last week. Then he said that “liberty under the rule of law” was the basis of her conviction.
The question now is: was this just a gracious recognition of the guiding principle of one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers? Or can we hope that today’s political leaders have been brought to understand the importance of this essential political leitmotiv? To find out, let’s listen carefully to this year’s party conference speeches.
Tim Knox is director of the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank founded by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in 1974. www.cps.org.uk