03 February 2015

Maggie's Draws

In one small corner of the Internet, I am notorious for my opinion of 'the dreadful Mrs Thatcher'. Thanks to the magic of retweets, I find there is a Twitter account commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the election of Lady Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative party. Several of the tweets reproduce excerpts from the newspapers of the time. I have copied two of these below.
The first is from the Sunday Times, and the second is by the Sunday Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne, a particular favourite of mine.*

What is striking from both these excerpts is how Mrs Thatcher is seen as something different, someone who represents a break with the past. Events would prove both of these comments prescient, but I think Worsthorne does a better job of capturing that difference than the Sunday Times' writer. One wants to fall off one's chair reading that prior to Mrs Thatcher the Tories were not 'a class party'. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have been the very definition of a 'class party' — the class being the people who own the country. But the clue there as to Thatcher's real significance is in that comment 'to rebuild the...position of the middle classes'. The fact is, the mischievous 1970s in Britain had much to do with different sectors of British society demanding to maintain, in TradeUnionSpeak, 'differentials'. The skilled workers believed they deserved more than the unskilled. The accountants and sales directors believed they were entitled to more than the skilled workers. The idea that your 'value' in wages depended on the colour of your collar was at the root of Mrs Thatcher's appeal.

And that leads naturally on to Worsthorne's comment. He refers to Sir Keith Joseph, who was the first well-known politician to present the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman to the British voters. Worsthorne uses those words that should have been fatal to any person running for the leadership of the Conservative party, that the party leader would be a 'liberal' in the old-fashioned sense of that word. The Conservative party was rooted in the idea of being the natural leader of the country as a whole, balancing the interests of the other classes while preserving an institutional structure that dated back at least as far as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its accompanying ideology of 'English liberty'. For Lady Thatcher, and her éminence grise, the equally dreadful Rupert Murdoch, the old establishment had lost the will to confront the enemies of those who own the country. People needed to be judged by their individual achievements in mobilising the resources of a market economy to become a good earner, not by their location in a social order that sought to control change. If the establishment's institutions got in the way of this battle between the market and its enemies, they must be put down from their seats. The previously humble, at least those who showed the gumption to get on in life under a free-market economy, would be exalted now.

For people like me, who admired that institutional structure that had seen Britain to victory in two world wars and had both started and accommodated a welfare state that indeed had reduced 'differentials', Lady Thatcher's years in government were to be a profound disappointment. But, even for those who hoped the unleashing of enterprise would lead to revitalised British economy and a classless meritocracy, Britain forty years on must seem to have failed the liberalising spirit that Lady Thatcher promised in 1975. I do hope @thatchersrise will continue the story at least up to 1979, so people can compare ambition with results, and join me in seeing in hindsight that Lady Thatcher's legacy of failure was present at her creation.


* I saw him in 1996 with some of his acquaintances at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square in London. For the second time in my life I found myself a few feet from a writer who had given me great pleasure over the years, and declined to go over and offer my compliments. I feel bad about these missed opportunities.

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