Has Hell Got a New Prime Minister?by Paul Hjul / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 12.04.2013
On the 8th of April 2013 Baroness Margret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, died as a result of a stroke. Coverage of the event has been divided into four types:
a) Polite and sometimes gushing obituaries in the tradition that one does not speak ill of the dead.
b) Vitriolic attacks on Thatcher and all she has come to represent (which for her opponents is everything they despise regardless of its connection to Thatcher or its coherence at all).
c) Jestful remarks such as the tweet which formed the basis of this article – “Maggie is working on a plan to privatize hell”.
d) Serious journalistic pieces.
This article doesn’t fall into any of these. Instead it is an amalgamation in a bit of a messy omelet that hopes to cause you, the reader, to critically consider, and hopefully reject, Thatcherism.
If the believers in an afterlife are correct then there must be a resident populace in Hell. If Thatcher’s most venomous opponents are correct, then syllogistically Thatcher must be in Hell. The irony that most of Thatcher’s most vehement opponents purport to be adherents to a materialistic belief system in which there is no Hell is undoubtedly lost on the vast majority of Marxists – academic and otherwise.
Both Lady Thatcher’s supporters and opponents would agree, that, if she is in Hell, she would probably be able to secure election by the resident population as the Prime Minister. Even if such an office does not exist yet. Of course if the normal powers of persuasion fail in Hell, Thatcher could always handbag the Devil (which I imagine involves a crumpled copy of the Authorized Version duly autographed by God – nobody would know how she obtained it, which would just add a bit of mystery to the whole affair).
I do not believe that Lady Thatcher is eternally damned or that she was particularly evil, moreover as I wish to demonstrate – but probably will make less headway than Ian McEwan – a great deal of the scorn reaped upon her unfairly conflates the cultural phenomena and label “Thatcherism” with the now departed human being. In order to stand up against the evil’s defended in the name of “prosperity”, “law and order”, “freedom” and “fairness” we must first and foremost embrace humanity. This includes the recognition that whatever she may have done, and whatever may be attributed to her, Margret Hilda Roberts was born a human being with human value – even if her espoused philosophy failed to recognize this. This does not however mean that we need to be uncritical of Thatcherism or to decline to take her death as an opportunity to critique her life.
Thatcherism boils down to “intent on monetising human value” and implies the necessary underlying belief that this is possible. Thatcherism coupled with Reaganomics formed a formidable, if somewhat incoherent, political force that dominated the “West” at the end of the Cold War. Proponents of these (illiterate) schools of thought argue that they “won the Cold War” and defeated “Marxism”. Opponents on the other hand view these schools of thought as aggrandizing greed and as a form of class warfare on the poor (the fact that 20th century history has shown the majority of “revolutionary leaders” -including Jacob Zuma and Blade Nzimande – to be Orwellian pigs). It is however grossly naïve to believe that what has come to be called Thatcherism was born in 1979 or that “neoliberalism” is anything new or for that matter liberal. As with most political phenomena of the second half of the 20th Century the Second World War provides a suitable – if somewhat incomplete – starting point.
At the conclusion of the War the United Kingdom, against the warnings of amongst other Friedrich Hayek’s seminal work The Road to Serfdom, adopted policies of full employment and cradle to the grave comprehensive welfare state. They depended upon constructing a large civil bureaucracy and the use of central planning and all manner of silliness attached thereto – such as prohibitions on extensions to telephone cabling in your own home. By 1974 the decisions of the last 30 years had effectively caught up with the United Kingdom, and for that matter most of the “West” which were gripped in a harrowing recession: with the Bretton Woods system collapsing in 1971 and deindustrialization or having fully set in. It was impossible to stick to a government agenda of preserving “full employment”. In 1979 Thatcher headed the political party which was ready to change the tide in the United Kingdom – despite having greatly contributed to the situation it was moving to change – and launched her premiership by successfully bringing down Callaghan’s government which in its dying moments poignantly set out what Thatcher would have none of when in government:
such … as improving our industrial efficiency, the return to full employment, controlling prices, better industrial relations, and overcoming poverty. There will be no sense of complacency by the Government about what needs still to be done, but neither should we overlook the achievements of the last five years (Her Majesty’s Government)
Her ruthless and unprincipled route to power was not camouflaged and her address advancing the no confidence vote is well worth reading in full contained the core complaint that brought Thatcherism to power:
The Government have doubled prices, doubled dole queues, doubled debt, diminished our defences and undermined public respect and confidence in the law. There has been a failure not only of policies but of the whole philosophy on which they are based—the philosophy which elevates the State, dwarfs the individual and enlarges the bureaucracy. Across the Western world the tide is turning against that, and soon the same thing will happen here. (Her Majesty’s Government)
It is no coincidence that many governments formed in the period from 1976-1984 would be viewed as “on the right” by most concepts of the political spectrum. Hayek received the Prize in Economic Science in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1974. This was followed by Milton Friedman taking the (renamed) Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel two years later, to the consternation of “the left” (which form the core of Thatcher’s critics). Around the world government was to be chastised and the beast of collectivism starved to use Reagan’s nomenclature.
Thatcher purported to be an advocate for freedom when instead she was a barrister for removing restraints on those with power or means. Thatcher was an individualist after a time when collectivist doctrines dominated and failed political, and industrial relations, discourse. But she was not a liberal or libertarian. She had the same lack of qualms in using state power to tackle the unions as she had in imposing poll taxes. While a net effect of Thatcher policies may have been a reduction of the tax liability imposed on individuals coupled with more economic freedom, her approach towards privatization of state assets allowed far too much corporatism to ever rationally be viewed as committed to true economic freedom. Thatcher purported to be a conservative yet she took the helm in legislating radical changes on British society.
Thatcher’s deregulation of the financial sector undoubtedly contributed to the phenomena 20 years later of having banks that are “too big to fail”. But without her releasing government control over telecommunications the London Internet Exchange would have been a complete impossibility and the world of information technology would be much poorer – no Acorn Computing to form the basis of the controllers of modern smartphones and tablets. In abandoning full employment as an objective of state policy she caused many people to lose their jobs but directed an economy that ultimately created more jobs.
Her involvement in bringing an end to apartheid is most aptly set out in Richard Dowden’s conclusion that she “played a pivotal role in the ending of Apartheid in spite of herself”. Her infamous criticism of the ANC as a “typical terrorist organization” is yet to be forgiven by Pallo Jordan, although the influence of the Guptas makes the succeeding part that “anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land” seems less inappropriate now than it did 10 years ago – at which time many within the tripartite alliance where accusing the Mbeki government of being run by capitalist interests. To suggest that Thatcher was a racist is to stray from the evidence available, but it is clear that her disregard for humanity would leave the majority of non-whites both in the United Kingdom and in South Africa in a perilous state. Similarly her track record on promoting gender equality begins and ends with the trivia factoid that her name will forever be included in history as the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
In essence by 1978 the electorate of the United Kingdom was ready to embrace Thatcher and all she stood for. Many Britons paid dearly for this during her reign and have every right to celebrate her death, as they clearly are. However the prosperity and move towards individualism and innovation which the change in course that took place in the late 1970’s are being enjoyed today by some of those most vocal in damning Thatcher, and we have a duty to recognize this hypocrisy. Thatcher was fundamentally a politician trapped in her times. She fell for and contributed to the rhetoric and stupidity of her day. People were stupid in the 70s and 80s, especially in matters political. Sadly that has not changed – as is proved to the entire world every time a country has elections. On the whole, and in the balance, her polices contributed to a better world at a great price – which is a significantly more than can be said about many politicians.
Thatcher’s detractors paint her as something akin to Hitler. This is both incorrect and somewhat unfair, as the truth is found in the differences rather than similarities: Thatcher was an authoritarian, but not a fascist. Thatcher allowed for corporatism in her privatization agenda but the corporations built by Thatcher followed the tradition of John Stuart Mill rather than Benito Mussolini. Thatcher was not a national socialist or populist figure.
On the contrary her success as a politician appears to have proved Machiavelli correct, something that only furthered the cause of the cynical utilitarianism that was underlying Thatcher’s politics. It is towards Cecil John Rhodes (who with no small irony was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and an alumni of Oxford which broke tradition by declining to confer an honorary degree on Thatcher) rather than Adolf Hitler that we should turn our gaze to find the tradition which Thatcher followed. A thread of cynicism as to human nature and values which adopts the premise that “every man has his price” and in so concluding allows the adherent to value their own infallible construct of “progress” above the intrinsic value of another human being. This thread of cynicism allows an individual to harbor the naïve and self-serving belief that they are the productive class on whose shoulders society rests.
The pseudo-philosophy of objectivism deeply romanticized in the 1950’s love story Atlas Shrugged provides individualists with a fairy tale world wherein their people (the us) are the victims of oppression by various forms of free-riders and sheep who actually depend on the individualists to survive (the them). Ayn Rand provided the prospect that the “productive class” simply go on strike under the conditions of oppression and in so doing bring the world of the unproductive to a halt. Thatcher provided an alternative. In Thatcher we find the promise that the uber mens (the Aryans in Nazi and Nietzsche terminology) has a third option: taking back government and imposing a utilitarian value system on the world – monetizing human value.
I do not mean to suggest that individualism is wrong, or that humans should be blocked or deterred from acting in their rational self-interest. I merely advocate that as human autonomous agents we have a duty to see the autonomy and humanity of others and to promote humanity. I mean to suggest that the relationships between people are more complex than politicians and their rhetoric can ever hope to understand.
May Lady Thatcher rest in peace. May the obituaries and hagiographies that form part of contemporary customs towards death coupled with the uncouth vitriol that we have come to expect from many “on the left” keep us entertained. May the festivities celebrating her death be joyous and those grieving loss find peace and solace. May the work of historians, economists and other scholars continue quietly in the background dissecting a life and philosophy filled with nuance and contradiction, lest the Myth of the Iron Lady become yet another shackle with which we enslave ourselves. Sadly the Thatcher family will cremate a great woman while the world will refuse to bury the ghosts of an evil which has come to be known as Thatcherism.