09 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher : The not so libertarian PM who stopped the socialist slide

I was young when I first heard of Margaret Thatcher, and having a few relatives who were socialists, I wasn't fond of her at the time, although she was a curious figure, as I hadn't ever seen a political leader who was a woman.  Certainly the mainstream media in New Zealand and most of my teachers held her in some degree of scorn.  However, I learned better, one could tell from so many of those who opposed her, what she was made of - courage.  Courage to take difficult decisions that caused much short term pain, for long term gain.

She was courageous, and it was difficult to be neutral between her and a tinpot military dictator seeking to take some islands full of hard working farmers and fishermen, and then difficult to side with a communist mining union, that used violence against those willing to turn against them.   I became warmer towards her over time, as her opponents increasingly looked like control freaks, or deniers of economics, and she looked ever braver as time went on.

For there was, at the time, a stark choice.  Margaret Thatcher, against those who thought they knew best how to run businesses, grow the economy and provide people with a living.  In 1983, Labour's Michael Foot tried to sell neutrality in the Cold War, unilateral nuclear disarmament, much higher taxes, nationalisation of major industries, withdrawal from the European Economic Community (to create a fortress Europe).  It nearly came third in the popular vote as it opposed fighting for the Falklands and supported unions that openly sympathised with the Soviet Union.

Margaret Thatcher against those who taught the politics of envy, the politics of moral relativism, and those who believed fervently in class warfare.  Margaret Thatcher against those who thought that the UK should be neutral in the Cold War, as if neutrality against totalitarianism was the moral highground.   Ken Livingstone was one of those who embraced the authoritarian left, and continues to crawl in the gutter.

She was no libertarian, but in the equation of freedom for me, she moved two out of three in the right direction, and the black marks she left on freedom do not mean she deserves the opprobrium her death is now bringing from the simple minded and the statists who despise her. For none of them have the slightest interest in individual freedom.  Indeed, the reason she stirred up such venality is because she argued on principle - short term populism was not her game.

That in itself, is rare in politics today.  

She gave copies of Hayek's books to her Cabinet colleagues telling them to read it.  She was the political grunt behind an intellectual push to turn the tide of the Conservative Party away from "the orderly management towards socialism" that it had adopted since 1945, to actively rolling it back.  She did so by abandoning corporatism, abandoning many state monopolies, and liberalising laws on trade and employment, and by dramatically cutting taxes.  She got the budget under control, and turned around the economy, and after a burst of mass unemployment, as many saw their jobs under sunset industries end, employment grew and a new culture of entrepreneurship emerged.  The price paid for these reforms was high for those parts of the country that had been dependent on old jobs in industries that lost much money, with old technology and little future, and perhaps more could have been done to boost enterprise in those regions.  However, she turned direction towards capitalism, and she forced the Labour Party to do the same, after it lost three elections promising a return to socialism (one of which was one step removed from Soviet bloc style socialism).   

She didn't abolish the welfare state, or the NHS, or indeed the state education system.  In fact, whilst there were some reforms of them all, she focused attention on the economy, and the deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation of business.  When she left office, there were no longer monopolies in many industries, and she sowed the seeds for the growth of the UK's export of business services, not simply financial, but also legal, accountancy, management consultancy, public relations, media and advertising.

Yet it was in foreign affairs that, with a few exceptions, she showed herself to be a formidable opponent of totalitarianism.  She allied herself with Ronald Reagan after his election as US President, and was unafraid to declare her belief in freedom when she met Mikhail Gorbachev and her opposition to the dead-headed grey crushing machine of Soviet imperialism.   There is little doubt that the resolve of this pair to deter the Soviet empire helped fuel its decay and demise, and the people of Eastern Europe can be grateful for that.  Yes, she signed away Hong Kong to China, but the promise of 50 years of capitalism for Hong Kong will expire with China having been transformed towards capitalism.  Yes she was sceptical of the ANC and of South Africa having a better future under it than under apartheid, which she loathed as well.  She saw what had been happening to Zimbabwe, ignored by the left and rightfully feared that ANC rule would create simply a new corrupt ruling class of kleptocrats.   Yet she supported South Africa's own reconciliation process, which surprised more than a few.  The only black mark against her record was her support for Augusto Pinochet, as she was blinded by his hatred of communism, thinking his own dark record of political repression could be excused because communists could be worse.  However, few remember Harold Wilson inviting Nicolae Ceausescu to the UK, as a full state visit with the Queen as host, and granting him a knighthood.

What is particularly notable about her is her background.  The first woman Prime Minister of the UK is a point that most of the left-inspired feminist movement, which she largely eschewed, despise.  She didn't share their state collectivist view of how the state should treat women as needing special regulatory assistance or subsidies to advance, for she didn't.   That the Labour Party has singularly failed to ever elect a female leader continues to be the shameful response to that, as Thatcher became leader and advanced principles, philosophy and policies that weren't what "real women" are meant to advance.  

She also did not come from the upper class privileged background that now has significant leadership in the Conservative Party, indeed she became leader primarily because she was seen as an interim figure, who didn't offend the two wings of the Conservative Party and wasn't thought of as being electable.  She was to some of those "born to rule" toffs, unelectable.  Her modest background made her, she didn't tolerate inherited privilege, she embraced ideas and grit.  She has disdain for the compromisers, the "wets" at her Cabinet table, who preferred short term popularity to long term commitment to ideas and end results.  You can see only a few flickers of that today in the likes of Michael Gove, whose passionate commitment to reform of education is a nod to Thatcher.  You do not see it in the Conservative's peculiar embrace of localism. 

Thatcher despised local government more than central government, seeing it as a place where petty authoritarians saw fit to control businesses, homes, land and behaviour, and to waste taxpayers' money on their preferred rent seekers.  She saw local Conservative politicians as not having the gumption to take on the hard left at the local level.

It's worth also noting that she was one of the first politicians to acknowledge the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, although she rightfully was sceptical of the statist interventionism that embraced trendy solutions to this, rather than letting technology and entrepreneurs find the path forward.  She would have taken a decidedly different approach to this issue from those who think the answer is to tax, subsidise and regulate, given she embraced nuclear energy, road building and property rights.

However, for all she did, her main achievement was to turn around an old rusty ship that was sinking to the left, she gave it momentum, that Tony Blair harnessed, Gordon Brown overloaded and stopped, and which David Cameron can't seem to kickstart.  She also turned around some of the beliefs, that the state exists to preserve the jobs and industries of the past, that individual effort and achievement should be sacrificed to the grand plans of those who want to use other people's money.

Her failure was in not changing the culture of envy, dependency and worship of government that pervades much of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the North of England.  Those who think the solution to economic malaise is to spend money on totemic projects, or to regenerate an area populated by no-hoper welfare dependents, or to create new nationalised industries to soak up the unemployed paid for by taxes on private business, or on the unborn (through debt).

That legacy remains, and has been cultivated by the hard left of the union movement, which still mourns for the Soviet Union, mourns for the dirty, dark, dangerous industries of post-war Britain, mourns for jobs that required minimal formal education and initiative, whilst stamping on any who dared step to one side and want to challenge their orthodoxy.  It is they who today who are joyous at the death of the woman who took them on, and by and large won.   For they know that despite what she achieved, there remains, in the country that worships the most socialist healthcare system in the free world, in the country that pays for some people to have homes in one of the most expensive cities in the world, in the country that is now pursuing a massive loss making totemic national project for political reasons, a great love for statism.

It was too much for one Prime Minister, leading a party filled with centrists and wets, to take them all on, and  her misguided attempt to introduce the poll tax finished her off.  She reversed direction for long enough that it is still a long way to slide back, in economic freedom terms, before Britain reverts to the basket case it was in 1979.

It will take a next generation Margaret Thatcher to make the next leap forward, but today I am grateful for the one we had.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, thanks. Agreed with much of what you have said. the world doesn't get too many leaders as capable as Margaret Thatcher, nor as honest, or passionate. Weak watered today, in comparison, are our bunch of current leaders.

thor42 said...

Very good post - very eloquent and true.