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The other side of the Iron Lady

Published on April 11, 2012 by: in: Politics

A big reformer, a friend of Poland and of freedom, a symbol of female emancipation – these are just simple and overused clichés about Margaret Thatcher. The truth about her rule is far more complex.

Traditionally, Women’s Day revives the debates that have been forgotten for most of the year. Some of them are trivial and some are very serious; however, all of them are held hostage by the exaggerated logic of “war of the sexes.” Especially this year, when a few weeks ago Meryl Streep was awarded an Oscar for the role of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it is impossible not to move back in time 20-30 years, when the famous “Iron Lady” ruled 10 Downing Street. When the movie started to be screened in Polish cinemas, I was watching closely the crop of newspaper publications about Thatcher and her times. And despite the fact that the years are passing, in Poland Thatcher is still being illustrated the same way as she was 5, 10 and maybe even 15 years ago. Firstly, this is due to the timely concurrence of Thatcher’s government (which constituted a total turnaround in economic policy), Polish political system transformation and our “close encounters of the third kind” with the good and bad sides of Neoliberalism. This narrative is slightly exaggerated but it is the propaganda of success that was blind to the Prime Minister policies’ failures, and was built on a superficial praise that aimed to save the British era. Secondly, (based on the logic of the war of the sexes mentioned above) Thatcher can be illustrated, mainly by non-conservative authors and those who strongly oppose her actions, as a woman-warrior in the world of males who were fighting her unanimously regardless of their own opinions. As a result, traditional and conservative Thatcher became a little bit of a heroine of the radical, progressive and feminist world. It does not matter that this happened unintentionally.

However, since we have read all these views already, I decided to write about Thatcher and her times in a slightly different way. Surely it will be less popular but hopefully it will contain a certain degree of originality. When an editor in chief tells you to comment on a politician who left their mark on the world but whose career ended a long time ago, the first step is to create a text that would be evaluating mainly the work of their political life post factum. It is crucial to do this, but I have always had an impression that it is sinfully ahistorical. Sometimes however, it is worth forgetting the advantage of our knowledge about the past (that was still a future for those who lived in those times) in order to evaluate the direct influence of politics and its impact on people, and to look at their fears even if at the later time they turned out to be unjustified.

photo: rahuldlucca

photo: rahuldlucca

Iron as in stiff

The direct success of Margaret Thatcher was related to the changes she had implemented to her own party rather than to her country. Even before she won her first election and became the Prime Minister, her new approach to economic policy gained the support of the majority of the Conservative Party (the wing of close to the centrist and so called “wet” Tories was of marginal significance.) This work could not be overrated. Economic liberalism had never before illustrated a typical Tory’s outlook on the world. Instead, they would rather establish themselves as supporters of the custom duties protectionism, the economy that would serve the Empire, and the licences that would be given away. However, the inflation crisis at the end of 1970s encouraged politicians to search for new approaches. It is interesting to note that the policy of consolidating public spending in 1978 was initiated by the Labour finance minister Denis Healey and was the reasons behind the government’s election failure in 1979. British citizens elected Thatcher as a result of protests against something that soon would become the essence of her policy. Yet this is another paradox of history.

Thatcher with her resolute and hard-line views would have been a good political philosopher or a party ideologist and the author of party programme documents. In a practical public position however, this kind of the rigorism started to turn into dogmatism and intellectual inflexibility.  Perhaps an economical neoliberal would be satisfied with such an approach to economic policy but soon it turned out that it transcended to a whole variety of political issues. Therefore, the way in which the Prime Minister changed her party covered not only the adoption of a clear approach to economic or tax policy, but also susceptibility to dogmatism and radicalism, which after 1997 became the direct reason to push the Conservatives aside  (in deep defence) to opposition for many years.

The country was changed as well, however, not according to Thatcher’s hopes and expectations. The free market developments were definitely going in the right direction and were meeting the needs of a country in stagnation where the state was helping more and more citizens. Unfortunately, as a result it was nursing and consolidating their lack of hope for better future, deprived them of dynamism and a will to be active. Therefore the question marks appear not when we ask about the fundamental direction of the reforms introduced in the 1980s, but when we go into details and express our doubts about the pace of changes and the selection of tools. Those questions have to be asked if the price for the partially beaten inflation was double unemployment in the first year of the prime minister’s rules, and the success turned out to be very much a temporary thing anyway when the inflation started to come back through the intricacies of exchange rate policy. Questions have to be raised if the deregulation policies were inconsistent and the budget cuts were immediately accompanied by new burdens which, to make matters worse, were connected to centralisation and administrative control over many areas previously supervised by local authorities. The vision of Great Britain in Thatcher’s mind was undoubtedly completely different from the “product” of her government. Great Britain was supposed to be strongly individualised, dynamic and resourceful and freed from excessive regulations, but at the same time it was under strict control of the political state institutions. It would often be maintained by half private agencies that were given to trusted agents or connected to the party business, but also socially controlled in the spirit of traditional British class elitism where “noblese oblige”(nobility obliges). Despite this, society was becoming more and more individualised in the social sphere which meant it was more progressive and it rejected the rules of living in the old-fashioned frames of social hierarchy. Centralisation turned into poor quality bureaucracy that was barely controlling anything, but was still wasting a substantial amount of resources. Society was losing its ability to self-control, not only because of the vanishing elitism, but mostly because of the breakdown of ties in the local communities due to the accelerated pace of economic reforms. This in turn meant that it became necessary to use more intense (and costly) means of police control and security.

Iron as in stubborn

This picture appeared as early as the first term of Margaret Thatcher’s government when the British liberal communities bitterly criticised its policy. It was widely known at that time that the Labour Party, which was just getting involved in the rhetoric of the “Marxist renewal” and the creation of state socialism, was not offering any alternative. The main two system parties got stuck in the mental ruts that would base all governmental policy on the economic, class based interest of their own party base. On one hand, Thatcher and her Tories were focused on: benefit cuts (benefits which were not taken by their electorate), introduction of economic freedom (that was welcomed by their electorate), and demonstration of power of the state repression’s apparatus (in order to diminish any signs of social discontent and ensure that their own electorate would be secured from the mob’s attacks) but they completely ignored the challenge of building frameworks that would enable the growth of social mobility, open ways of promotion, and connect the large number of citizens (including the poorer ones) with the social and economic model of free market capitalism. On the other hand, we have a redder Labour Party which had been radicalising its programme after a failure in 1979, and cared only for populist postulates to restore and increase redistribution (in favour of their electorate) through increase in strains and nationalisation (bad for the other electorate), and adopted a careless attitude towards the general condition of national economy. In these circumstances of growing unemployment, regression of industrialisation, profiteers’ support, centralisation that harms local authorities, degradation of social relations in local communities and unrealistic postulates of the leftist opposition, the British liberal movement woke up from a deep sleep where it had been since Liberal Party disintegrated in 1931. The alliance that was formed between the right wing of the Labour Party and the Liberals in 1982 became the most popular political force in the country. The Prime Minister’s majority was saved in the 1983 elections only thanks to the stronger national feelings that evoked after the war in Falklands.

Iron under harsh criticism

The liberal and only rational criticism of Thatcher at that time was escalating among four main elements. The first one was obviously related to the Prime Minister’s foreign policy. The Falkland War was described as nonsense and a proof of Thatcher’s hypocrisy that would disclose the insincerity of her promises to treat budget consolidation as a priority. In this approach, next to the radical distrust towards partners in Europe and EEC policy, we can see a typical traditional element of the world’s vision according to Tories and of a sometimes fanatical nationalism and internal disbelief that the Empire was actually lost.

The second element of criticism was obviously related to the economic policy which was seen as dogmatic, excessively ideologised and deprived of necessary balance, for example in between the goals to fight inflation and unemployment. The fact of taking the economic and liberal ideas out of context was emphasized. They were “designed” by classical liberals and they were supposed to serve a free human individual who was described as: creative, ambitious, resourceful, good by nature and generous. In the meantime they were used by the believers of the conservative worldview who would rather describe a human being as: cynical, selfish, stupid or bad by nature, which changed the original ideas into their caricatures. As a result, we can observe a grave violation of the principles of “social ecology”, so appreciated by the British liberals, which was a postulate to ban any sudden experiments with a live social tissue. It was not allowed neither in the style of designed leftist utopias of “ideal order”, nor in the style of an old-fashioned social Darwinism. Thatcher enjoyed the support of the majority of the liberal centre while she was facing the Unions’ insolence (they were acting from the stronger position). However, she couldn’t count on their support when she was doing likewise from a stronger position of power; when she ignored the rules of dialogue, disrespected propositions of compromise, imposed her authoritarian decisions on others, weakened democracy by alienating big social groups from the existing system and caused growth in the lack of faith in democracy which she was representing through the government’s deafness. She also destroyed the structure of local communities that was weaved from spontaneous social and economical relations. This resulted in communities being devastated, people starting to experience social pathology, vandalism and frustrations due to the lack of perspectives. Thatcher provoked anger when, after a few years, the reforms (mentioned above)  that were paid with those sacrifices turned out to be inefficient, inflation was raising again, companies were going bankrupt, and the proportion of private properties was decreasing rapidly as a result of rising unemployment in the neighbourhood. Finally, she caused a cynical smile on her critics’ faces when her economic policies based on the slogans of the liberal deregulation and the state’s withdrawal aiming to give bigger freedom to citizens, was accompanied by the state’s growth in all other areas. The Tory state could not stop to control the citizen. Not in the times of Thatcher.

The third element of criticism for Thatcher was related to her social policies which were so contrary to the so often recalled Victorian traditions, especially to those which were close to the classical conservatism. This is how Thatcher got caught in a trap set up by Marxists. She abandoned the doctrine of Benjamin Disraeli “One Nation”. Disraeli rebuilt the position of his run-down party thanks to this doctrine and all his Tory followers, starting with Bonar Law and Baldwin and finishing with Churchill and Heath, were committed to it. It was a doctrine that managed to overcome or ignore any class divisions, established policies for all British citizens above those divisions, and built the nationalist spirit when the classes’ economic businesses were polarised too much. To be honest, Thatcher followed a similar approach while carrying out the Falkland’s invasion, but in her times it was not “One Nation” anymore. The Tories in the 1980s were a party that served the proprietary classes. It was a party that existed in the trap of elitism and it got there by mixing the elements of economic liberalism and the ideas of the conservative social hierarchy and crowd control for their own good. The fourth element of criticism, as outlined earlier, concerns: issues related to the policy that forms the state’s system, centralisation, concentration of great power in the government’s hands, abrupt use of the repression apparatus, growth in bureaucracy, and finally rise in the corruption susceptibility.

Thatcher’s decline

It all looks rather pessimistic, right? It is clearly the other famous side of the coin. The side of exaggerated praises about the effectiveness of Thatcher’s government that is written with hindsight, where one can sum up everything and skip some issues in the final balance. If it concentrates on people who lived in the Thatcher’s era and their criticism about the Prime Minister’s government, we can see the scale tipping to the other side. Necessarily it is the compilation of exaggerated rhetoric that is used by the opposition which wants to remove the government. However, it is also truth that – just like Wałęsa, Balcerowicz and Buzek in Poland – Thatcher was liked by British people the most, when the memory about her rules stopped being fresh and the likeliness of her being the Prime Minister again was none.

I wouldn’t like to create an impression that the author of this essay sings up to everything what Margaret Thatcher was being accused of by her contemporary Liberal Party and the centrist public opinion. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head, sometimes they were way off the target. The biggest problem for the Iron Lady’s government was to ignore the suggestions of Ralf Dahrendorff. This British-German liberal wrote that there were three main social and political desirable goals in every situation in the system of a contemporary, western, liberal democracy: political freedom, economic effectiveness and social cohesion. The ideological differences are connected with different accents that are placed on them. Thatcher started to reform her country in 1979 almost as if it was….Poland after 45 years of actual socialism where one had to build a completely new economic order and the existing social relations, with a few exceptions, were worthless as they were weaved out of a mentality that was contaminated with homo sovieticus. However, the complete ignorance towards the aspect of social cohesion and the strong violation of political freedom for the economic effectiveness was totally unjustified since the British crisis was not that severe. This experiment changed society. The quick liberalisation of British society was the result of policies that lacked any balance. In 1968 Brits were not as transformed as the societies of France, Netherlands or western Germany. It was in the 80s and 90s when the accelerated (and probably the biggest in Europe) changes towards permissiveness took place. Thatcher wanted to liberalise only the British economy but at the end she liberalised it in all fields. Perhaps, it was too late, but she understood that the society cannot be strongly individual in one aspect of life and strongly traditional in another. Today, for a liberal, it is the most optimistic summary of the Thatcher policies’ legacy. But probably not for the Iron Lady herself.

Translation: Anna Martinsen

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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party – demokraci.pl.

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