The meaning of Margaret

One of Margaret Thatcher's young ideologues from the 1980s—and now a senior Conservative thinker—reflects on where Thatcherism came from and why he is no longer a Thatcherite
May 3, 2009
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The election of the Conservative government 30 years ago on 3rd May 1979 is one of the key dates in Britain's modern political history. That anniversary is not being marked by careful analyses of monetarism or privatisation but a focus on the character of Margaret Thatcher, with old animosities and caricatures out on display again. It is still very difficult to get a measured judgement of the 1980s without it all turning on what you think of Her.

There are many reasons for challenging this focus on her personality. For a start it fails to give adequate weight to the formidable intellects and political operators around her. Even in opposition in the late 1970s the process whereby Geoffrey Howe and Keith Joseph argued their way through key documents such as "The Right Approach to the Economy" turned out to be an effective way of preparing for government. A recent BBC play presented her as driven by the need to humiliate the men around her. But this is to misunderstand her argumentativeness—she believed in truth through conflict. She challenged and tested people and their arguments but, at least until her final period in power, there were always ways of arguing back which the key people around her mastered and which she respected. I know because I saw it. I was a middle period Thatcherite. I had been a junior treasury official during the battles of the early years when we just had to get a grip on public spending and stabilise the finances. Then for three years in the mid-1980s I was a member of her policy unit. The challenge, one of the hardest for any government, was to develop new ideas after years in office.

Questioning the Thatcher personality cult can lend weight to the determinist argument that many of the changes associated with her name were inevitable or would have happened anyway. It is even argued that many key reforms actually happened before she was elected. On this view the real change in policy was the IMF package of 1976, including tough spending cuts and monetary indicators of inflation reinforced with Jim Callaghan's famous statement that you could not spend your way out of recession. The election of 1979 was the endorsement of a policy shift that had already occurred.

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That is to go too far. Margaret Thatcher's character was indeed crucial, just as Winston Churchill's arrival in the premiership in 1940 was vital. Like Churchill, she had a capacity to imagine what our country could be and then expect us to fulfil it. De Gaulle claimed to be driven by une certaine idée de la France. Thatcher had a certain idea of England—and it probably was England, not Britain, which was one of its problems. It was a picture of sturdy individuals with their freedoms protected by strong institutions. I remember when as a keen young ideologue I called it laissez faire and she corrected me—no, she said, a system of "ordered liberty." Perhaps she just didn't like French phrases.

She came to office at different dates in different departments. First it was financial stabilisation and trade union reform. Privatisation followed, but only after trying to allow nationalised industries to operate in a state-market limbo that was shown to be unworkable. By the mid-1980s she was exasperated by the failure to develop a convincing Tory argument on public services. We were getting the worst of all worlds—accused of having a secret privatisation agenda without actually doing much at all. She decided to go for public service reform: grant-maintained schools and GP fundholders were part of an attempt to create stronger institutions and personal choice within a publicly financed service. Even the notorious poll tax was an attempt, however misconceived, to get real local democracy by broadening the tax base. Then came the historical enormity of the collapse of the Soviet empire, events so compelling that her antennae failed to pick up how out of touch she was getting with her own colleagues, her party and the country.

On just about all these big questions her government was right. But none of it came easy—the process of hammering them out in government was disputatious and uncertain and then delivering them was always controversial. Curbing trade union power was not just a matter of legislation every two years—it meant defeating strikes. The climbdown before a strike threat from the Welsh miners in 1981 was evidence of her pragmatic judgement of where power then lay, and the lesson she learned was the need for careful planning for every contingency. Even so the miners' strike of 1985 was touch and go. Meetings at Downing Street during the miners' strike were like scenes from a Shakespeare history play with messengers entering with hurried reports—"Yorkshire is solid," "Nottinghamshire is with us," "Kent is rebelling."

Her view of how government should work was surprisingly traditional. This was one of the many lessons she learned from the failure of the Heath government. Edward Heath had, like her, wanted to cure the British disease. He thought that this must mean reorganising Whitehall, but most of what he did was a wasteful diversion of ministerial effort.

She did not have a large staff around her. Inside No 10 she had a team of about five private secretaries, the official mechanism for communicating with Whitehall. She had a political office of two. There was a press office with half a dozen people. And then there was a small policy unit, of about eight of us, up on the second floor. And that was it—no sprawling strategy units or implementation teams. In his memoirs Nigel Lawson says that cabinet meetings were a waste of time but even if cabinet meetings themselves had joined the dignified rather than efficient part of the constitution, cabinet committees were different—that was where the real work was done and where by turns she listened, cajoled, exploded, conceded or persuaded but rarely just instructed.


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She did not like the word ideology, thinking it described a doctrine imposed from above—whereas she saw herself as liberating people to follow their true instincts which she always believed were far better than they were given credit for. But ideology or not, Thatcherism clearly has a distinctive view of the world with deep intellectual roots. I believe they can be traced back to the Conservative revival of the late 1940s and early 1950s when Thatcher first became involved in politics. There was widespread hostility to wartime controls and austerity carrying on into peacetime. The whole cumbersome structure of permits and ration books, administered by faceless officialdom, was captured brilliantly in the Ealing comedies and has been part of popular Conservatism ever since. These instincts were reinforced by serious thinkers—notably Hayek whose Road to Serfdom was published in 1944 and had an immediate impact on the Conservatives (the party gave up some of its precious paper ration in the 1945 election so that more copies could be printed). He was a key figure transmitting the insights of the Austrian school with their trust in institutions and dispersed knowledge rather than the calculus of perfect competition. She also absorbed Cobdenite free market economics through the French classical economist and controversialist Bastiat, whom she cited to me as a key influence

This surge in ideas in the late 1940s and early 1950s has been lost from view because of the belief that there was a Butskellite consensus, but this understates the political arguments of the time. We now know from the cabinet records that had Labour won in 1951 it wanted to keep many of the microeconomic controls it had inherited from wartime. And Baldwinian Conservatism had been deeply corporatist, favouring state sponsored mergers and protectionism. Postwar Conservatism has a different feel—indeed it is when the party became more suspicious of the big state than ever before in its history.

There was an excitement to the new Conservative rejection of the belief that the man in Whitehall knows best. That notorious statement by Labour minister Douglas Jay gives another clue to her development too—his actual words were: "Housewives as a whole cannot be trusted to buy the right things… The gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people themselves." He was contrasting the socially eminent man in Whitehall with the woman out doing the shopping who was on the receiving end of all the queues and controls. Conservative rhetoric about rationing and controls was deliberately aimed at women voters organised in the British Housewives League. And behind it was an appeal to the consumer—usually female—over the interests of the producer—usually male and unionised. This potent postwar mix contains many of the ingredients of "Thatcherism."

Sometimes Thatcher did talk as if everything had gone wrong after the war—and Correlli Barnett, who argued there was a British disease dating right back to the postwar settlement, had an influence on her. Keith Joseph famously claimed: "It was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism. I had thought I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all." It was Edward Heath who was his real target and perhaps, for those with longer memories, Harold Macmillan's failure to back his free market Treasury team in 1958. Some of Thatcher's political heroes and mentors came from those postwar Conservative governments—people like John Boyd Carpenter or Peter Thorneycroft. At the time I thought that Keith Joseph was right to be so dismissive of the party's postwar history, but now I think that remark has done great damage. There had actually been a very successful reconstruction of Conservatism after the war, with a powerful mix of freedom from state control and support for strong civic institutions as the best way to tackle social problems.

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If the origins of Thatcher's Conservatism are indeed in the party's own renewal after the war then it could easily have made her just another conventional Tory—in reality she was semi detached from the party, like some other great leaders such as Disraeli, Salisbury and Churchill. This is partly because being a woman kept her out of the club—metaphorically and sometimes literally too. Her origins in Methodism rather than the established Church gave her a wariness of the establishment and a precious ability to see things as an outsider. Indeed she could exasperate ministers by operating, even at the height of her power, as if a leader of the opposition who happened to be in Downing Street.

There was something else about her which made her rather unusual in British politics—her training as a scientist. She was much more rigorous about evidence and facts than most politicians. The process of speech writing was so slow and anguished because it was deeply serious. She would only consider advice from people after they had been tested on their knowledge of facts and evidence. She would expect us in her policy unit to know the most obscure facts about contribution conditions for a benefit, rules on exemptions from prescription charges, or obscure tax reliefs.

Meetings were for judging character and papers for judging ideas. She did her papers at night—the most important form of communication with her was on paper because it was the way she absorbed information most effectively. She had a marking scheme that you learned—ticks, underlining, wavy underlining or, worst of all, no engagement at all. She never made Tony Blair's mistake of creating an artificial distinction between policy and delivery. She always wanted practical examples as part of any policy decision. But equally she was always judging every tactical decision against wider principles. She had an exhilarating ability to move between a fine-grained consideration of some detail to a strategic sense of why it mattered—like a film director swooping from close focus to wide angle shot and back again.


What about the legacy? Her government left the country in better shape than it found it, and you can't say that for every government. John Major's achievement was to sustain many of the changes so they could not be reversed by Labour in 1997.

And the downside? The biggest is that too many people did not share the fruits of our economic reforms And this in turn left an intellectual vacuum that Tony Blair could fill with his claim to offer both economic efficiency and social justice. The critique of her and her government was encapsulated in her notorious remark, that there was " no such thing as society." It conveyed a view of the world against which the electorate reacted and then indeed the Tory party too. The actual quote is less brutal and it is worth quoting in full. Even Woman's Own, where it first appeared, gave an edited version, which is the one usually cited. You have to go back to the original COI transcript to find what she actually said. Here it is: "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 look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation."

She was trying to make a point about rights and responsibilities. Indeed this goes right back to another part of her political development—her first ministerial post as the minister responsible for national insurance benefits. She was, despite everything, a Beveridgean. Even as prime minister she was still interested in the intricate workings of the contributory principle. She had a keen grasp of the difference between social security, for which people had contributed—and welfare, for which they had not.

This was not just a matter of the right way of running a welfare state, it went much further. She believed in personal responsibility and in reciprocity and exchange not just in the economy but more widely. We had debts to repay—I remember her dismissal of an idea she thought would mean lower benefits for ex-servicemen—and we also had obligations to future generations; she announced her conversion to environmentalism in a powerful speech arguing we were not freeholders but leaseholders, with a full repairing lease at that. There was a British historical flavour to all this—she believed we had been better than just about any other country at protecting individual freedom while also having strong institutions which shaped our obligations too. This was not a blood-and-soil nationalism of the sort that disfigures the right in some continental countries; instead it was a love of the institutions that she felt were our national greatness.

She realised the problem which "no such thing as society" had created. Her response was Christian. Her speech in 1988 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was her most considered answer to her critics. It is a deeply serious speech about how a free market economy could not just be a world of the devil takes the hindmost because of the Christian duty to one's fellow citizens. And often when presented with criticisms of her record or of the supposed vicious effects of capitalism she would draw on biblical parables such as the story of the good samaritan or the parable of the talents. She understood that people who enjoyed success had a wider responsibility to the community. She once confessed to Frank Field that her great regret was that there was not much more charitable giving by the rich whose taxes she had cut.

Even now, when you find a Conservative calling for social justice, like Iain Duncan Smith or Tim Montgomerie, you may find they are driven by their Christian faith. This is an important part of the Conservative political tradition. The trouble is that Thatcher's appeal to personal religious faith did not persuade in a secular age. It did not pass the test of "public reason" set by John Rawls—the challenge that in a pluralist society you should be able to justify your position with reasons that people coming from different religious or moral backgrounds can accept. As a result she appeared to end up understanding Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations but without an underlying account of our moral sentiments. This was the core of the crisis that then afflicted Conservatism. Our historic success came from our appeal to shared understandings, including respect for historic institutions and the established Church but these were fracturing, partly because of the very forces unleashed by free market reform. So she left behind the question not so much what the party stood for but what it stood on.

She was not interested in how people were doing compared with others—she thought this was the politics of envy. I remember doing some calculations for her which showed that the value of unemployment benefit in the 1980s was not much below average male earnings after the war. So what were people complaining about? Now the work of people like Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson has persuaded me that inequality matters too. There are of course limits to what governments can do, especially about the petty differences between us and people we know, which are often the inequalities people worry about. Nevertheless in dismissing all this as just the politics of envy we showed we did not understand something which does affect wellbeing. Back then we just assumed that there was a robust British society and all that had gone wrong was that statist economic policies had messed up the wealth producing bit, but when that was sorted people would stop being so angry about things. Now, even at the bottom of a recession, the social question looms much larger than we thought then.

At last we are beginning to communicate these understandings in a secular world. We are learning more and more, for example, about how co-operation works and how it is sustained. Oddly enough, it shows that reciprocity, which she referred to in her quote and which was removed in the official version, helps to make altruism work. Human empathy is important for society and for our shared humanity and evolutionary biologists are helping us to understand where it comes from and how it works. We can understand more rigorously than ever before the sources of human wellbeing. Conservatives need not fear these researches; they reveal the "latent wisdom" behind many Conservative ideas.

View the details of the Prospect/YouGov poll on Margaret Thatcher's legacy here; and discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect's blog