Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Iron Lady, 1925-2013

Margaret Thatcher is dead of a stroke at 87. (Read the FT’s fact-filled obituary here if you need to get up to speed, or this by her biographer Charles Moore packed with fascinating anecdotes.)

Most news reports this morning start with saying she was Britain’s first woman Prime Minister—as if that were her signal achievement. Paraphrasing Dagny Taggart, I suspect she’d say her achievement was being what Downing Street had lacked for decades: a man.*

She took a Britain known as the “sick man of Europe”—a Britain who since the war had been in thrall to statism, to socialism and to mediocrity, and was now at the fag end of that dead road—the arid place with“no future” that a generation rebelled against—she took it and she transformed its spirit, if not its substance.

And with her knowledge of Hayek behind her (who, with his mentor Ludwig Von Mises, had predicted the Soviet Union’s planned economy could never last), she faced up to the threat of a communism that seemed to be engulfing the world, and with Ronald Reagan she put it back in its box.

She was called many things, few of them fitting, but she chose for herself the epitaph hurled at her by her Soviet enemies. “The Iron Lady” they called her in insult; she accepted it as a tribute.

This, they recognised from the off, was a Lady who was not for turning. (Perhaps her most famous line, for which her party conference awarded her a spontaneous five-minute standing ovation.)

Single-minded in her devotion to her goals, she wasn’t above using her femininity to achieve them—French president Francois Mitterand paying bewildered tribute to the victor after one bamboozling meeting, “She has the eyes of Caligula, and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.”

Committed to her ideal of liberty, and largely aware of the intellectual battle involved, she achieved what she could. She barely deregulated at all—and in some areas, broadcasting for example, she increased the screws—but she liberated one nationalised industry after from the state’s shackles by vigorous privatisation**, and she exported to the world, even to the socialists, the crusading zeal of rolling back the state. “"Privatisation shrinks the power of the state, and free enterprise enlarges the power of the people," she cried, taking a generation with her. (Read here her sober account of methods and reasons for privatising, neither of which were exactly similar elsewhere, and all of which were designed as much as possible, like her sale of council houses at a discount rate, to make as many Britons as possible the owners of capital and spread the benefits of private enterprise to the  entire middle class—a social revolution that transformed the creaking British class structure.)

She cut the top rate of taxes from the eye-watering 83% and 95% figures that saw British tax exiles domiciled across the globe. But they were only cut to 60%, while the “middle rate” was reduced from 33% to just 30%, and the bottom rate of 25% was eliminated altogether. And because under her reign, the NHS expanded, the welfare state increased, and total government spending continued to increased she paid for it by pissing away the revenues from North Sea oil, and she elected to double sales taxes—which continued their slow creep upwards after she left office.

Sadly, as author George Gilder observed subsequently, “the net effect of the Thatcher program has been a substantial increase in taxation on virtually all taxpayers.”

It was perhaps her real achievement to be the symbol of all she talked about, the twentieth-century Boadicea slaying the statist dragon so inspirationally that around the globe movements began that really did begin to roll back the state, this country being no exception.  And like the work of Roger Douglas here, the political transformation she initiated in Britain meant that while the politicians who succeeded her excoriated her legacy (Blair in Britain, Bolger and Clark in NZ), they did all they could to preserve the transformation.

If there was one programme that earned her the eternal enmity of the antediluvian left, (the sort who inhabited the factions which Tony Blair worked to expel from the British Labour Party in his first months as leader) it was taking on the unions in her middle term.

In a model of the way Workers Soviets had been used to broadcast Bolshevism through Russia, British trades union held a vice-like grip on virtually every industry in the country, and were beginning to think they were running the country for the benefit of their members. For most Britons, almost 20% of them unemployed, the 1979 Winter of Discontent was the last straw—that infamous winter in which everyone from gravediggers to rubbish collectors went out on strike, leaving corpses piled up and rats overrunning the rubbish piled up in British streets.

“Labour isn’t working” was the genius slogan on which she was elected, with the expectation that this would never happen again.

Arthur Scargill’s coal miners threatened a crippling strike in her first term and she backed down. She wasn’t ready. But after stockpiling coal for another confrontation, she was ready in 1984 when the National Coal Board, preparing for privatisation, announced plans to shut down 20 unproductive mines kept open only through massive applications of the taxpayers’ salve. It was unsustainable—and it was the ideal battleground on which to break the unions’ stranglehold.

And break them she did.** The miners struck, and after a year of violence and confrontation, the unions crumbled and their public support collapsed. Portraying them as "Marxists" who wanted "to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics," she won the battle which was used to win the war.  Trades unions have never since held such power or influence, and even the Labour Prime Ministers who succeeded her were at least quietly grateful. She changed them too, you see.

“She changed us all,” said former aide Charles Powell.

We went from being a people who saw ourselves as eternally on the downward slide to a nation that was proud to be British again. On the world stage too, she made Britain count once more. She was a startling presence who brought a strong and controversial style to our diplomacy after years of Foreign Office blandness.

In this too, she proved inspirational, as she so often was when she spoke:

  • "I am not a consensus politician. I'm a conviction politician." – 1979
  • “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money.”
  • “Do you know that one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.”
  • “When I'm out of politics I'm going to run a business, it'll be called rent-a-spine.”
  • “To cure the British disease with socialism was like trying to cure leukaemia with leeches.”
  • “Defeat? I do not recognize the meaning of the word.” – Thatcher on being told in 1982 that involving Britain in the Falklands conflict could result in defeat.
  • “Consensus: “The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?”
  • "This is a day I was not meant to see." - To reporters the day after surviving a deadly 1984 Irish Republican Army bomb attack on the Conservative Party conference.
  • “Democratic nations must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend.”
  • “Being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law.”
  • “It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.”
  • "I don't mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say." – Thatcher in 1980, a year after becoming Britain’s first female prime minister.
  • “My policies are based not on some economics theory, but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay; live within your means; put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time; support the police.” – Thatcher in an interview in September 1981.
  • "Pennies don't fall from heaven, they have to be earned here on earth."– Thatcher in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 1979.
  • "To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning." – Thatcher during the Conservative party conference in October 1980. She was responding to expectations that there would be an about-turn on tough economic policies.
  • “Nobody would remember the Good Samaritan if he had only good intentions. He had money as well." – Thatcher’s response during an interview in 1980 about whether her savage spending cuts would lead to greater inequality in Britain.
  • "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty." - On the 1984-85 miners' strike
  • "We can do business together.'' - 1984, speaking of the Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev
  • "If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing."  - 1989, commenting on her 10th anniversary as prime minister.
  • "I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it’… and so they are casting their problems on society. And who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first…  There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend on how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves, and each of us prepared to turn around and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
  • “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.”
  • “There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.”
  • "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left."
  • "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
  • "I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air." – in 1991, to George Bush I when he was wavering on defending Kuwait as promised.
  • "It is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union, which have tried to run everything from the centre, are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, there are some in the community who seem to want to move in the opposite direction. We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels." – in her "Bruges speech", 1988

She was resoundingly a champion of science, and of the human spirit. Here she was after her retirement, angered at an interviewer’s suggestion that advanced nations are "making technology a god at the expense of the human spirit.”

Perhaps the single best tribute is to post an excerpt from her last performance in the Commons, delivered just as the gentlemen sitting on the benches behind her were knifing her in the back.

* Of her successor, the grey man John Major, she famously opined, "If only he were a man."

** Arguably, one of the unfortunate legacies of this campaign is the global warming movement that is still with us. It’s argued by many of her former colleagues, her former Chancellor Nigel Lawson foremost, that she helped engineer the formation of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and kick off the world opprobrium for carbon, in another means by which to put pressure on the miners union. Whether that’s true, it’s certainly clear that Thatcher, a chemist by training, was among the world’s first climate alarmists, standing alone at the time on this as with much else.

[Hat tips Cato at Liberty, Hit and Run, State of Innovation, Burton Folsom, Boston Globe, Zero Hedge, Guardian, Telegraph, Real Clear Politics, Taking Hayek Seriously]


  1. what about Northern Ireland?

  2. A titan of the twentieth century has fallen.

    My favourite Thatcher quote:
    "Pennies don't fall from heaven; they have to be earned here on Earth."

  3. An exceptional person, leader & politician.

    In the 'Commanding Heights' series there's footage of her going by boat up the Polish shipyards and the docks are packed with Poles who've come out to see her. They with their hopes & her with a sunny confidence & serious determination to see change & liberation. Brings tears to the eyes.

  4. Thatcher and her quotes provide an excellent example of how libertarians and Objectivists should communicate their ideas - short, simple, and reducing it down to common sense the average person can understand and relate to. She was the best we could hope for in a modern day politician.

    She also provided an excellent example of how real change can be made against seemingly overwhelming and hopeless odds. She was driven by conviction, but focused by what was politically achievable - thereby able to make gains incrementally. Libertarians and Objectivists usually have the conviction, but lack the latter - and in adopting an all or nothing approach usually end up with nothing.

  5. @Mark: Yes, there's truth in this.

    But be aware she was also prone to letting her 'incremental victories' outweigh the long run consequences. Three examples

    In her eagerness to decimate the antediluvian Labour Party of her time, which infested especially local councils (these were the 'Militant Tendency' type of troglodytes Tony Blair finally cleared out with his banishment of 'Clause 4' ) she simply began removing power from local councils. This worked to remove powr from the Derek Hattons, Ken Livingstons et al. But then instead of doing away with the powers they had, this ended up centralised in Whitehall, leaving central govt even bigger and more powerful tan before.

    For the same reasons, she introduced her poll tax, the political clusterfuck that finally laid her low. Yes, it showed ratepayers which councils were the most profligate, but instead of the biggest spenders (the likes of Lambeth and Liverpool) lessening their spending, their ratepayers instead blamed 'Maggie' for having their wallets raided. [Disclosure: in my first year in the UK, just out of uni, my partner and I were forced to pay the equivalent of $3800 in poll tax to the local thieves, (around $6100 in today's dollars) a not inconsiderable sum that represented most of our savings at the time.]

    Third example: if her colleagues are right (and this certainly seemed to fit her strategy in other areas) her plan to decimate the unions included, not only the the removal of pro-union legislation to (for example) outlaw union violence and the confrontation with Arthur Scargill's Nation Union of Miners, but also the initiation and promotion of global warming alarmism as means to diminish coal (thereby decimating the NUM's support base), and even the planned destruction of whole industry sectors that were ravaged by trades union troglodytes.

    Or another example would be her 'incremental victory' of pumping up the British economy by having Nigel Lawson pump rocket fuel into the money supply, bought at the expense of the later inevitable bust.

    So as I say, her shorter-term incremental victories (with, to be fair, a strategic goal) could sometimes be bought at the expense of the longer term.

  6. I agree Peter. She wasn't perfect and she clearly got some things wrong - in particular the poll tax. But for things she was right on, it's the spirit in which she pursued them that I admire - and which I think we can learn from. On balance she achieved more in winding back the state then any 20th century politician I'm aware of.


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