Richard Smith: Are we all Thatcherites now?

Richard Smith A friend, possibly drunk, recently sent me a message on Facebook to ask if I was a Thatcherite. Thatcher was in the news because of the debate about her state funeral. Hours later my friend sent a second message hoping that she hadn’t offended me. Eventually the next morning she rang me, desperate to be reassured that I hadn’t cut her off forever—because there was a time, still is for some, when to be asked if you were a Thatcherite was equivalent to being asked if you were a paedophile, strangler, or sadomasochist (the latter has, of course, become respectable in the past few weeks).

As I contemplated joining the Facebook group “We support a state funeral for Thatcher if she’s buried alive,” I wondered not only whether I was a Thatcherite but whether we all are.
I started at the BMJ a month before Thatcher came to power. It was nearly 18 years before I was again to be an editor under a Labour government, and part of my brother’s stand up routine in the early 90s was to say: “Am I the only one in the room to have had sex under a Labour government?” I published dozens of articles that were anti-Thatcher.

Thatcher was the “milk snatcher” even before she became prime minister, and to be thought a Thatcherite before the Falklands War would have been terrible. Not even many Tories were: the “wets” were still all over the place, soon to be culled. Thatcher curbed the power of the unions, fought the miners, raised interest rates to cut inflation, introduced VAT, allowed unemployment to climb to over three million, told us there was no such thing as society, privatised everything she dared, and promoted the power of the market, including in the health service—although she never went nearly as far the Labour government did subsequently.

Wikipedia defines Thatcherism as ““characterised by decreased state intervention via the free market economy, monetarist economic policy, privatisation of state-owned industries, lower direct taxation and higher indirect taxation, opposition to trade unions, and a reduction of the size of the Welfare State.” Some don’t accept that there is such a thing as Thatcherism but argue that she was a pragmatist doing what she had to do to get Britain “back on track.”

This view conflicts with the story, perhaps apocryphal, that during a shadow cabinet meeting she slammed a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty down on the table saying, “This is what we believe.”

So are we all Thatcherites now? We are perhaps in that we are able to benefit—not least in the NHS—from Britain’s economy having grown dramatically at least in part through her policies. To be “against” the free market is like believing in the phlogiston theory, although we’ve perhaps forgotten that markets need vigorous regulation.

If a central tenet of monetarism is to free a central bank from political control and ask it to concentrate on keeping inflation low by raising interest rates when necessary to restrict the money supply, then our present Labour prime minister is the arch monetarist—and it seems most unlikely that any politician would take that freedom away from the Bank of England. Brown is also keen on indirect taxes.

Would anybody renationalise British Airways, BP, or British Telecom? No, although they might be tempted by the railways. And is any electable politician keen to give more power to unions? Even the Labour party, which depends more heavily than ever on union funding, is wary of increasing union power.

It is perhaps in the English NHS that we can best see the tendency for us all—or at least the politicians we elect—to be Thatcherites. She herself never dared to privatise the NHS, but her government did introduce the idea of the internal market—with the split between purchasers (now commissioners) and providers. But it never really got going—apart from the spluttering of GP fundholding. Labour when it came to power in 1997 promptly scrapped the internal market only to return to it with a vengeance within a few years. All the major parties now favour using market mechanisms within the NHS: Thatcher has been out-Thatchered.

And what about me, the author in the early 80s of passionate articles on the evils of unemployment? Well, if we’re all Thatcherites now it follows that I am. But my changes have come not from Thatcher but from age, the Stanford Business School, and reading the Economist. Famously, if you’re not a communist under 40 (and I was) you have no heart but if you’re a communist over 40 you have no head. I studied economics in California as the Berlin Wall came down, and any support of a planned economy suddenly seemed ludicrous.

It’s supposed to be the English disease to turn into the people you despise. Could it have happened to me?

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  • Beth Kilcoyne

    I think I (who asked the question, sober) would respond by trying to look at Thatcherite values rather than Thatcherite policies. I think you need to look at her beliefs first and foremost, rather than her policies. Policies can and indeed should change over time because of changing circumstances; values remain the same.

    It seems to me there are 3 key aspects of ‘Thatcherism’ to consider.

    First, the belief that a free market is the best way to organise not only the economy but pretty much everything else. Credit crunches show unfettered markets don’t always work and that there is a very clear role for government in terms of regulation. And whilst some aspects of the market are being brought into public services like the NHS or transport, they are nowhere near a ‘Thatcherite’ free market; healthcare remains free at the point of delivery.

    Second, ‘there’s no such thing as society’, only individuals and families, so let’s roll back the state as much as possible. But it is blindingly obvious that individuals and families can only thrive and fulfil their potential if they have the opportunity to do so. Too many families don’t, which is why the state has an absolutely vital role here in terms of education, health etc. No true Thatcherite would subscribe to this view.

    Third, national sovereignty delivers the best outcomes for Britain (even though she actually signed the Maastricht treaty.) But you just need to look at global warming, migration and terrorism to see what a load of bollocks this is.

    Are you a Thatcherite, I think if the question is to be in any way interesting, means: do you now feel you broadly agree with what she did at the time and the values she stood for? It doesn’t mean saying you read The Economist and have taken on board the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or that you can see the benefits of a market economy (which of course you can very comfortably, if you are successful) and that some good things have come of Thatcherism. I might as well have well as asked a French citizen if they were a republican.

  • Rupert Gude

    Yes, Richard, it has but you cannot see it.
    First you denigrate a critical friend but imputing her sobriety. Then you seek to include the rest of us -‘Are we Thatcherite? We are perhaps…’, ‘the tendency of us all to be thatcherite …’,.
    No, supping with the pigs at Stamford farmhouse and reading their papers has dulled your mind and made you shortsighted.
    I have no truck with the internal market in the NHS.It has made a lot of money for many not interested in patients health. Gordon Brown of New Labour freed the cental Bank of political control not the Tories.
    It time for you to get out into the farmyard and actually sign up to the Facebook site with glee rather contemplate it from afar as juvenile antics.
    Where is the fire?

  • John Hoggarth

    So, you are assuming your friend was drunk because she asked if you were a Thatcherite? It seems a perfectly sober question to me. Was questioning the lady’s sobriety defensiveness on your part? Why would that be? By the way, equally sober is her fine analysis of how to better address your answer.

  • Richard Smith

    I’m unconvinced, Beth, that you can define Thatcherism in terms of values rather than policies. She was a politician not a philosopher. She herself never defined Thatcherism. We must infer—indeed, create—it from what she did and said.

    You’ve thus invented your own Thatcherite values. They amount to nothing more a parody of standard right wing values—the market, individualism, and nationalism. (It’s a parody in that Thatcher never came close to arguing for a free market in health care. Indeed, almost nobody anywhere does.)

    Thatcherism has to be more subtle than your crude definition if it means anything at all—which it may well not. The Wikipedia definition I used is, I judge, a good working definition—and by that definition we are all close to being Thatcherites in that most of what she stood for has become standard policy in Britain.

    And Thatcherism has to be seen, I think, in a British context. She’s not Confucius or Buddha: there’s nothing there to last a thousand years. She changed Britain in a fundamental way, which is why it’s not ludicrous to contemplate giving her a state funeral. Simon Jenkins has argued—in the Guardian—that she “saved” Britain as did Nelson and Wellington, previous recipients of state funerals.

    The Wikipedia definition of Thatcherism didn’t mention either nationalism or social conservatism, and if these were part of Thatcherism then I would very much not be a Thatcherite. But these, I would argue, were characteristics of her but aren’t part of Thatcherism because they had no originality. Indeed, it was her anti-European streak that was her downfall.

  • Richard Smith

    This is an interesting example of how a throwaway comment can displace a serious (or at least semi-serious)debate.

    I’m not entirely certain what I intended by wondering if Beth may have been drunk when she sent her email, but I have two hypotheses.

    Firstly, I do receive a fair few emails from people who are clearly and admittedly drunk, and they often raise interesting,lateral questions. Some of them over the years may even have come from Beth.

    Secondly, it was very “out of the blue,” something characteristic of being drunk.

    I certainly didn’t mean to denigrate Beth, and I’m grateful to her for asking a question that got me thinking–albeit not very clearly.

    Where Beth and I may agree is that we live in a “Thatcherised society.” I’m not sure if that means we are all Thatcherites–yet again it depends on definition.

  • Beth Kilcoyne

    Richard – how very alarming that you, an Editor, allow Wikipedia solely to define Thatcherism for you. Perhaps you were drunk when you began your blog. As you have noted, yes, I was able to briefly outline my own definition of Thatcherism for myself.

    I stand by it; it was not crude, it was a brief economic, social and foreign policy round up, because this was a response to a blog, not an essay. It is plain wrong to say you can’t define a politician by their values! Her values informed her policies, the application of which provided the effects / particulars by which we characterise Thatcherism. At the Court of King Caractacus, which passed by long ago so I do really suspect my question is irrelevant; blah blah we live in a Thatcherised society etc.

    Your demand to isolate what is peculiar to Thatcherism is correct, but I would argue you do that by following the values through into the policies she applied. Some of it does lands you in social and nationalist territory – of course it does, we are defining a political concept. It’s in the detail, not the overview that you will find your ‘subtlety’ for she didn’t, as you seem to imply, create an original economic theory, she simply followed a monetarist policy religiously, allowing me, yes, to give a standardised right wing definition of her values, above. That’s what it was – it was Thatcherite because she was the Prime Minister who deployed it, but it was an existing theory.

    So, I’ll pick 3 particular policies that characterise Thatcherism, then – but they are certainly derived from the values listed (briefly, broadly) above.

    1) Thatcher opposed sanctions against pro-Apartheid South Africa in part because of what it would do to British trade. Thatcherism – putting the market before any moral consideration.

    2) She was prepared for the 3.5 million unemployed to pay the price for her economic strategy and tell them to get on their bike – a social consequence, an economic value, the state disempowering & subliminally blaming its own (of course poorer) citizens: Thatcherism. And let’s not forget the systematic demonisation of the ‘feckless’ unemployed at every Tory conference, Peter Lilley’s Gilbert & Sullivan song mocking single parent families, Waddington a pro-capital punishment Home Secretary – Thatcherism.

    But what is it that you say? That if the definition included social conservatism you wouldn’t call yourself a Thatcherite? The definition includes this, these 3.5 million people who had to live like that when Lawson was continually using his fatted surpluses to benefit the rich (I think I’m right that in the ’87? budget he used a £2bn surplus to remove the super-tax bracket & gave pennies to schools & hospitals?) How do you feel about that social conseravtism? I think the young you got it right.

    3) Her much-criticised support for General Pinochet was in part due to his help during the Falklands War – she repeatedly said if it hadn’t been for him, far more British lives would have been lost. A supreme example of her nationalism – the thousands of Chileans abused and tortured go ignored, the saved British lives are the ones that matter. Nationalism carried though to override any moral consideration: Thatcherism.

    That’s I think what you mean by subtlety – the particulars that we remember, that come to characterise her tenure. But as you say she wasn’t a philosopher, neither was she an original economic thinker: she implemented an existing theory Richard, she was a politician. As such you have to take on board the social and foreign policy aspects when defining Thatcherism.

  • Richard Smith

    We can only answer your original question of whether I’m a Thatcherite if we agree on a definition of Thatcherism. If you have your definition, I have mine, and everybody has their own we can never answer the question. That’s why we go to dictionaries or, in this case, Wikipedia for definitions.

    You seem to have accepted my point that we can’t define Thatcherism as just standard right wing philosophy. It has to be more, and you accept that it has to be more subtle. Unfortunately you’ve overdone it.

    You seem to be defining Thatcherism as opposing sanctions to South Africa, allowing unemployment to climb, and supporting General Pinochet. This is like defining “Bethism” as liking to go out on a Friday night, reading the Guardian, eating jellied eels, and being a good dancer.

    A useful definition has to be less particular but not as general as your first offering. Wikipedia does a better job than you.

    I’m off now to see my definitely non-Thatcherite mother, beyond the internet, but I’ll be back tomorrow if necessary.

  • Beth Kilcoyne

    Dear Richard, unfortunately your woeful inability to comprehend my point is writ large above. I shall have to try and put it more clearly for you – as you have completely misunderstood me.

    Yes, I do know those 3 examples do not define Thatcherism – you could have checked this for yourself by reading my initial response.

    I am pointing out that the characterisation of her tenure comes from particulars, the effects of policies she deployed, but that her general philosophy and the definition of Thatcherism stems from her beliefs. So I am saying – here’s three particular things one might say were ‘Thatcherite’ but trace where they come from. They come from her beliefs. That’s my point. These three examples are what I think you mean by subtlety – giving texture and context to the definition; you have failed to grasp this and are therefore confused, viz your response above.

    Also, have you never thought of defining your own terms and thinking for yourself? If we all stuck to your prescription, Doctor, revisionism and original thought wouldn’t exist. I certainly reserve the right to define Thatcherism for myself and I think my ball-park definition would be generally agreed to concur with most others out there.

    You might do well to learn the difference between definition and characterisation which is all I think you mean by subtlety – you mean the particulars. There’s nothing else to nuance it because she wasn’t an original economic thinker and she was a politician. Ergo her reign is in part defined by the effects of ther policies, which stemmed from her beliefs.

    Also, you are acting like I’ve written an essay on it rather
    than replied to a blog; if you wish, you may write an essay for me and I’ll give you a tutorial to help you out with the subtler points. Kind regards, B Kilcoyne

  • James Currie

    Thatcherism is synonymous with selfishness, so we all must be a little Thatcherite.
    She did not ‘save’ Britain economically. The success of the 80’s can be summed up in three words; North Sea Oil.
    BTW, the Economist has absolutely no credibility. It endorsed Bush in 2000!

  • Robert Boon

    Sorry to lower the intellectual tone, but a state funeral would be a great opportunity for a mass chanting of “Maggie!Maggie!Maggie!In!In!In!”

  • Liz Miller

    This morning, in a General Occupational Health Clinic, two employees from different employers, referred because of poor performance at work, believed that Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister.

    Both individuals seem likely to have been long term beneficiaries of low price C6H5OH policies. Nonetheless, nearly twenty years later Margaret Thatcher’s place in the collective consciousness remains impressive.