With news of Margaret Thatcher’s death today, Rodney Barker looks at her legacy. Thatcher’s robust straightforwardness and uncompromising nature set her apart from her Conservative successors, as did her ability to not only exploit political circumstances and the existing state of thinking, ideology, policy and language, but to shape and create them.
Margaret Thatcher was one of the two great twentieth century British Prime Ministers. Her impact on the United Kingdom, on her own Conservative Party, and on the language and agenda of politics was matched only by that of Clement Attlee, whose government brought into being the welfare society of the post-Second World War settlement, a society whose slow erosion she set in train, and to whose bitter divisions she contributed, stigmatising as ‘enemies within’ miners and anyone else who seemed not on side or not on message.
Thatcher has frequently been praised by both those who admired her and those who detested her, as uniquely single minded, straightforward, and uncompromising. ‘The lady’s not for turning’ as she famously put it. The reputation is exaggerated, and her record of radicalism was one of a slow hardening and narrowing of determination, rather than of a clear programme of change from the start of her leadership or her premiership. But by the time of her second election victory in 1983 after the Falklands War, she was set to become her party’s most successful leader ever. One reason why she has been so loved on the right is that she allowed the Conservative Party to shed its inhibitions about the welfare society, universal benefits, public services provided equally to all citizens, education, health, and assistance on the basis of need, paid for by progressive taxation; to each according to his needs, from each according to his ability. Before Thatcher, although Conservatives did not like a health service shared equally by all in a society where any advantages accessible to wealth had to be privately acquired, they had felt constrained by the international reputation and the public support for the Attlee government’s achievements. Thatcher changed that, and allowed the conservative party to shed its inhibitions and launch an assault on the social democratic settlement created after the second world war.
Shifting policies and strategies were supported, in true Gramscian manner, by a shift in language. On Thatcher’s watch a whole range of activities which had been previously defined in terms of valued human functions, were reduced through re-description to cash transactions. Economic differences became the determinant of all other differences, as passengers, clients, audiences, and patients were all reduced to ‘customers’, and only two public roles were not shrunk into the ability to pay: voters and worshipers.
All Conservative leaders after Thatcher have followed the path she opened up; Major fragmenting the railway system into a chaos of profit seeking fragments, Cameron reducing public services in a hurricane of cuts. But what marks Thatcher off from her conservative successors is their lack, by comparison, of straightforwardness, none more markedly so than the Cameron government. Cameron and Osborne attack the welfare society with even more aggression than Thatcher, but with none of her honesty. There is a shiftyness in the current Conservative Party’s pretense that cuts in public services and the move to increase the economic dimension of everything is a desperate necessity in an economic crisis. Cameron, in a rare moment of candour at the start of his premiership, said that the cuts in public services were ones he would have made, and would have wished to have made, even if there had not been an economic crisis. But that straightforwardness did not last, and was rapidly replaced by a strategic evasiveness so that all the attacks on the welfare society were presented as responses to economic necessities.
Thatcher’s robust straightforwardness is a disconcerting model for her successors. It was disconcerting for her opponents too. She was the first female leader of a major party, let alone the first prime minister, which should have endeared her to the left. But female heroines are one thing, female villains rather another. She was difficult, bloody minded, superbly self-confident, and not afraid to pursue policies which might be difficult, unpopular, or risky. This was both the cause of her success and the cause of her downfall over Europe and the Poll Tax. She became an accomplished and charismatic orator, and one never afraid to mock herself. She once told an admiring audience that she knew her political life had some vitality left since, on her way to the venue, she had passed a cinema whose posters announced ‘the return of the mummy’.
Reputations are frequently misleading, and public images can be the mask over the face of reality. But mask and face are never entirely at odds. Thatcher’s relations with the government of the United States and with Ronald Reagan never looked like anything other than an equal alliance, and one where the sharper tongue was in London. In the twenty- first century the government of Tony Blair never succeeded in looking like more than an overeager Robin to the gung-ho Batman of George W Bush. Thatcher’s record might be one of punching well above her weight abroad, but also one which provides evidence that a country, and a government, will be rated in part on the basis of the audacity and confidence with which they rank themselves.
At home Thatcher, whatever the hesitancy of her early years and before the Falklands War, was a leader who recognised the powers of government and was willing and eager to use, and create, them. In confronting her ‘enemies within’ as well as her enemies abroad, she displayed an active and creative role of government which marked her off dramatically as a leader who was prepared to be combative and audacious. Irresponsible bloody-mindedness was never something displayed by any party leader after Thatcher. But one outstanding lesson of her premiership is that a leader can not only exploit political circumstances and the existing state of thinking, ideology, policy and language, but can shape and create them. She inverted Marx’s epigram that men make their own history but they do so in circumstances not of their own making, because she either realised, or acted instinctively without realising, that they can make their circumstances too. She deserves the ‘ism’ that ennobled her into the ranks of a political category in her lifetime, and maintained her in the ideological aristocracy. She died in the Ritz. What style.
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Rodney Barker is Emeritus Professor of Government at LSE and Emeritus Gresham Professor of Rhetoric, Gresham College, London. He writes and broadcasts on a wide range of topics. His most recent publications include: ‘The Pluralism of British Pluralism’,Journal of Political Ideologies (2009); ‘Social Democracy and Liberalism’, Re-public(2008); ‘Democratic Legitimation: What is it, Who Wants it, and Why?’, in A. Hurrelmann, S. Schneider and J. Steffek (eds), Legitimacy in an Age of Global Politics (2007); Making Enemies(2007); ‘Legitimacy, Legitimation, and the European Union: What Crisis?’, in Paul P. Craig and Richard Rawlings (eds), Law and Administration in Europe: Essays in Honour of Carol Harlow (2003).