What Thatcher’s death means to me

Posted on April 11, 2013



An elusive, nagging sense of something like frustration has hung over me since I learned of Margaret Thatcher’s death a few days ago. I was just 6 when she fell from power in 1990, so only remember her as an occasional, vaguely unpleasant presence on the family television. She was someone I knew my parents didn’t like and I think her stern, self-satisfied aura probably imbued me with a subconscious distrust of the powerful that I hold to this day. But in truth I had no concept of who she was or what she stood for. I did not live through stagflation or the Winter of Discontent and do not remember the miners’ strikes or poll tax riots. Perhaps if I had real-life memories and emotions to call upon, and a store of thoughts and arguments built up over those years, I might now feel a sense of clarity. I might possibly have more sympathy for her actions, or, more likely, an easily identifiable (and probably more satisfying) feeling of rekindled anger and injustice. But instead there is only this lingering cloud of confused irritation. One question seems to lie at the heart of my angst: how can someone whose views and policies seem so utterly devoid of human compassion have inspired such adulation in a significant minority, and convinced many more to repeatedly return her to power?

Around the time that I was vaguely becoming aware of Margaret Thatcher’s significance, I was also learning a principle that has stuck with me ever since. At my North London primary school, each time my classmates and I teased one another, fought, or failed to share, we were told to ‘treat others as we wished to be treated’. Even at the time this seemed a bit far-fetched. We couldn’t really be expected to treat others as being quite as important as ourselves, could we? And why should people we didn’t get along with deserve the same treatment as our friends or family? When conflicts did break out, tit-for-tat often usually seemed a more appropriate response than turning the other cheek. Nonetheless I think most of us recognised that even if not always achievable in practice, this was something worthy of aspiring to. It made us aware of our fallibility, while also inviting us to become better people. It is no coincidence that this ‘golden rule’ lies at the heart of all of the world’s major faiths. As an atheist, I am all too aware that organised religion tends to produce the dogmatism and hierarchies that undermine the principle in practice, but it has also produced some of the most remarkable individuals and selfless acts in history.

What is striking about Thatcher’s revolution is that, despite her proud Methodist upbringing, this principle was almost entirely absent. Instead the far less intuitively significant ethic of individual self-sufficiency was its cornerstone. To the extent that the golden rule was present at all it was in the negative sense of not interfering with others’ freedom to conduct their business as they wished. In the increasingly unequal and privatised society that she was bringing forth, this meant freedom for the rich to become richer, the middle class to become indebted and the poor to lose their jobs and public services. Meanwhile ‘aspiration’ was reduced to its narrowest possible sense of accruing greater wealth and status, rather than – as my primary school teachers would have defined it – becoming better members of a community. The bastardisation of the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘aspiration’, the two abstract nouns that the Conservatives still claim as their own, seems to me to have played a key role in Thatcherism’s appeal. They provided a veneer of moral rectitude to an agenda that most people would instinctively reject as offering an ethical basis for society.

There is, however, another, perhaps more important, reason for her success in mobilising support. For all her moralising, Thatcher was far too canny to believe that moral transformation could be brought about on its own. Breaking ranks with the ‘one nation’ Conservatives who dominated her party, Thatcher rejected the notion that the economy should operate within bounds dictated by the principles of paternalistic inter-class solidarity. In fact she believed that a ‘free’ (that is to say a deregulated, liberalised and privatised) economy would instil the values of thrift, hard work and single-minded ambition that she had learned from her grocer father. Remove the supports and constraints that inhibit people’s economic potential and they will become ‘aspirational’. She believed that building a society (though she would not have used the word) on morals amounted to building on sand, and that only the market would impose the discipline and stoke the aspirations that would allow people to truly flourish.

Thatcher’s materialist philosophy was embodied in her famous quote to a Sunday Times journalist in 1981 that “economics are the method, the object is to change the soul”. If this sounds eerily like the ‘New Soviet Man’ that Russian Communists expected would arise once their revolution had produced a fully collectivised and mechanised economy, it is because the reasoning is the same. Create the correct economic conditions and moral transformation will inevitably follow. And just as the Communist Party leaders did not see smallholding peasants in their utopian vision of the future, so the Thatcherites never saw any place for what David Graeber has memorably called the ‘non-industrious working class’. These are the people, probably the majority of people who have ever lived, who would work in the jobs available to them locally, and do not sever their ties and leave as soon as another opportunity becomes available elsewhere. They are the kind of people who would rather spend their time being part of a community than single-mindedly climbing the social ladder. They were Thatcher’s Kulaks – the awkward problem that did not go away, even as the economic dream came to fruition. The right-wing media’s long-running war against ‘chavs’ and ‘scroungers’, and the renewed attempts of Thatcher’s present-day heirs to morally regenerate the poor with punitive welfare reforms, are a direct legacy of the failure of Thatcherism to create a sufficient number of Thatcherites.

But this inconvenient truth, (not to mention the emergence of a distinctly non-industrious class of speculators and rent-seekers at the top,) is hardly the point. The ideological certainty this materialist philosophy gave to Thatcher and her disciples instilled them with a cruel detachment which allowed them to overlook the consequences of their actions. As Ian Gilmor, a member of Thatcher’s first cabinet, noted, “they were largely cushioned by a surprising insensitivity to the human cost of their policy and by strong, if diminishing, feelings of dogmatic certainty.” This indifference underpinned a striking audacity and a sense of unity and purpose that Thatcher’s opponents, less impervious to the suffering of others and more liable to doubt themselves as evidence to the contrary mounted, could not contend with. This is interesting because it is the kind of accusation that Conservatives, who tend to see themselves as pragmatic and unencumbered by ideology, usually reserve for their left-wing opponents. In fact, behind the anti-intellectual façade and populist rhetoric, the entire basis of the Thatcher programme came from half-baked pseudo-sociological theories about the inevitability of state expansion and welfare dependency. Her ideology gave her the crusader’s moral certainty, while her political nous allowed her to pick and time her battles to perfection – until she eventually picked one too many.

For a leader who prided herself on her confrontational style and lack of sentimentality, it is interesting that so many of her supporters seem intent on softening her memory. As the laws of etiquette impede opposition voices from ‘speaking ill of the dead’, there seems to be an orchestrated attempt to elevate Thatcher to the status of an uncontroversial, and truly national, leader who stood above the politics of her age. She was certainly a talented individual and a brilliant politician who had an unparalleled impact over post-War Britain. Her remarkable achievement of becoming the first female prime minister in a male-dominated world should be celebrated by all. However, her ability and importance should not overshadow what is an overwhelmingly poisonous legacy. In the film Chinatown Jon Huston memorably remarked that “politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” This may often be so, but if only for the sake of creating a fairer and more cohesive society in the future, in the case of Thatcherism it should be resisted. I did not celebrate Thatcher’s death – I would not want anyone to celebrate mine – but neither can I bring myself to ‘respect’ her. This is clear proof that I still often fail to live up to the golden rule, even if I continue to aspire to it. Somehow I find this state of affairs strangely comforting. I’m sure Thatcher would not have thought it was anything to worry about.

Posted in: Inequality, Politics, UK