Margaret Thatcher: A Singular Ambition

A refreshing antidote to Nock’s Our Enemy, the State is John Blundell‘s Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady (New York: Algora Publishing, 2008). For a time, as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Thatcher not only retarded the progress of statism but reversed its course. There certainly was nothing fatalistic in her or in her political career, and everything inspiring and encouraging. Blundell, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, has known Thatcher since 1970 and has written a personal portrait of her (“a very personal interpretation of a very special life”), as opposed to an exhaustive biography and scholarly analysis of her life and politics. (He provides two pages of “further reading” on Thatcher at the end of his biography, listing books, essays, and articles.)

thatcher-reagan

Britain, by the time Thatcher became Prime Minister, had reached exactly the kind of political and economic nadir forecast by Nock when the State assumed coercive and near total sovereignty over the lives and fortunes of its citizens, otherwise known as “society.” Presumably, by Nock’s formula, the country should have descended into total bankruptcy, anarchy, and extinction. “There is no such thing as Society,” she once remarked. “There are only individual men and women and there are families.” Nock would have agreed with her, but while he condemned most individuals for harboring what he called an “invincible ignorance,” Thatcher was certain that most people would listen to clear reason when their liberty was at stake, and that those who harbored a willful ignorance were in the minority and beyond reclamation (such as Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers).

When she took office in 1979, the willfully ignorant in and out of office had brought the country to the brink of collapse. Mineworkers were running amok with strikes, government-fueled inflation was soaring, industrial production was plummeting, and nationalized industries such as steel, aerospace, and telecommunications were deficit ridden, congenital beggars for more government subsidies.

“From being a dominant trading nation Britain’s presence on world markets had shriveled. The U.K. accounted for 20 per cent of world trade in manufactures in 1955 but only 10 percent by 1979. It had exported 33 percent of the world’s cars in 1955. That was down to 3 per cent by 1979. Under the socialism of both parties the British economy was atrophying.”

The “lame duck” Labourite Prime Minister James Callaghan was reluctant to take a principled stand on any of the issues. Without going into the complexities of the British election process and British party machinations, Thatcher won the General Election, beating party rival (and consummate compromiser) Ted Heath and replacing Callaghan at 10 Downing Street. She won because she appealed to the self-interest of the electorate in terms of freedom and the idea that hard work deserved rewards that were not siphoned off by “society” or other parasites, whether they were welfare mothers living in council flats (government housing) or Rolls Royce or British Petroleum. She promised to free people from the inherently inefficient, wealth-consuming socialist controls that were reducing the standard of living and inculcating a fatal miasma of hopelessness, as well as a militant sanctimoniousness in those dependent on State patronization.

In short, although she (and Mr. Blundell) might not put it this way, she won because she appealed to the desperate yearning of productive men to be left alone to live their lives without having to become slaves to society or to the State. I believe she won more for psychological rather than economic or ideological reasons. That portion of the British electorate which sent her to 10 Downing Street confounded Nock’s determinism, because it did not want to be “taken care of” and because it saw through the sham of government coercion in the name of “democracy” and “popular sovereignty.”

As far back as 1975, when she was a leader of the Conservative opposition party, she was not interested in offering the electorate or her party a paltry soupçon of freedom. Her enemy was the State, and her singular ambition was to dismantle as much of it as possible. Blundell relates that her speech to a party conference:

“…was a foot-stomping success as she attacked socialism as the arch enemy of freedom and presented a principled conservatism rooted in private property, markets, liberty, smaller governments, choice, and the rule of law.” The 3,000 or so constituency loved it — what a change after decades of lukewarm government paternalism, easily labeled socialism, dressed up as middle-of-the-road conservatism.”

Blundell continues, ironically describing the political scenario that has come to pass in 2009 America:

“Margaret Thatcher had three problems with the middle of the road. First, you get run over by traffic from both sides. Second, as the Labour Party moved to the left, so the middle moved with it. Third, Labour tended to introduce new entitlements which were hard to unpick, so there was a ratchet moving the political scenery ever closer to the left ever closer to her much hated Moscow and even further from her much loved USA.”

Substitute the Democratic Party and Barack Obama for Labour, and the compromising, middle of the road Republican Party for the pre-Thatcher British Conservatives, and one has a fairly accurate American political parallel. Unfortunately, America has had no articulate political leader the stature of Thatcher since Barry Goldwater. (I do not include Ronald Reagan here; while his defense policies may have precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was the first major president to inject religion into politics.) To most politicians, the State is not your enemy, but your friend and savior. Republican candidate John McCain was simply a shot of the mulled wine of demi-fascism, as opposed to Obama’s whiskey neat of a command, socialist economy.

During her tenure as Prime Minister, Thatcher embarked on a bold and successful program of denationalizing industries, privatizing many “social services” presumed to be the natural venue of government (such as garbage collection), and reducing the scale of government-built and subsidized housing by offering tenants the chance to buy homes and apartments.

Blundell features a chart which shows that in 1914, 90% of Britons lived in private homes or flats and only 1% in “public” housing. By 1979, thanks to successive governments “socializing” the housing stock, only 10% lived in private rentals, 53% in private homes, and 37% in “council” housing. By 1997, 12% lived in private rental units, 71% in private homes, and only 17% in council housing. Thatcher apparently failed to make any progress in dismantling Britain’s socialist National Health Service and the Royal Mail. But, she was successful in reducing Britain’s notoriously confiscatory income tax rates. She also suspended currency exchange controls, allowing Britons to travel overseas with more than $50 in their pockets. By setting a political and ideological precedent, Thatcher’s 1981 budget became a norm which even socialists applauded:

“The top tax rates had been brought down from 83% on earned income and 98% on so-called ‘unearned’ to 60%, and then 40%, still high, but a huge drop. Even leftists today acknowledge the need for a vibrant private sector and low taxes to encourage it.”

(“The better to eat you,” said the collectivist wolf to privatized Little Red Riding Hood, which is a subject Mr. Blundell might have pursued, but it can wait until another day.)

“The U.K. abandoned all price controls. Dividend controls were scrapped. Limits on hire purchase were abandoned. Office Development Permits ceased. So did Industrial Development Certificates. Centralized pay controls ended.”

Blundell narrates this whole astonishing episode of the recovery of liberty through consistent privatization in the economy, demonstrating what can be accomplished through an unswerving dedication to liberty and what cannot be accomplished by middle-of-the-roaders and compromisers.

Given the sobriquet of “The Iron Lady” by one of her political enemies, Thatcher took pride in the name and lived up to it when Argentina invaded the British owned Falkland Islands in April 1982. While the world looked on in unbelieving horror, Britain sent a fleet to the South Atlantic and reclaimed the Falklands after a brief war. The conflict was waged because the Islands’ residents wished to remain British and under British law, and not come under the thumb of Argentine law or the military junta that ruled the country then. Instead of agonizing over possible world disapproval of a unilateral military response to the aggression, she immediately sent her high command into action. Compare that policy with President George Bush’s interminable and disgraceful quest for world approval to respond to the attacks on America on 9/11.

Many of Thatcher’s accomplishments in Britain have been undone by her successors, but especially by the European Union. Initially, earlier in her career, she was warm to the idea of a Europe united by control- and tariff-free borders. But that enthusiasm soured when the EU began to assume the character of an arrogant, ungainly bureaucratic monster. She did not think Britons’ pockets should be picked or their actions proscribed by unelected placeholders in Brussels, nor did she think that Britain’s sovereignty should be eroded by EU laws and regulations, which more or less are reducing Britain (as well as other EU members) to the status of a client state beholden to a patron state.

Now out of office, and free to speak her mind as never before on the subject, Thatcher, writes Blundell, “was openly asking the applicant countries [to EU membership] not to join and declared that the U.K. needed either to renegotiate its terms of membership or simply withdraw.”

In 2006 she said in a speech in Washington, D.C.:

“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 super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

In chapter 20, “Dealing with Brussels,” Blundell paints a grim picture of the prospect of total EU dominance over Britain. “But as the EU went from a loose trading model toward federalism she [Thatcher] became increasingly uneasy,” he writes. He probably did not wish to sound chauvinistic, so I am free to say here that, going by the EU’s unceasing campaign over the decades to persuade Britain to submit to Brussels, the advocates of the EU have always envied and hated Britain, and have always wished to knock it down to manageable size, to humble it, and to eat it alive, simply because it was freer and “fatter” than any other European nation. I include in those movers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, past and present Prime Ministers, who are on record of having conspired to bypass the “popular sovereignty” of Britons by making concessions to the EU on their own advice. (The EU’s partner in the campaign to compel Britain and the West to submit is Islam, but that is another drooling, omnivorous beast altogether.)

Blundell and Margaret Thatcher may not dare call it treason; I do. After all, the same envy and hatred exists in many American multiculturalists and American politicians, who wish to see the U.S. submit to U.N. and European law. They, too, hanker to see it eaten alive in the name of global amity.

I have two bones to pick with Blundell, one of them minor, the other major. The first concerns usage of the term democracy throughout his book to describe or refer to countries whose governments respect individual rights, private property, freedom of the press, the rule of law, and so on. The term is not synonymous with republic. Democracy means literally mob rule, in which rights may be granted or abolished at the whim of a majority. Republic, as it has been used in the past, implies a nation that meets some or all of the criteria of freedom. A sedulous commitment to the meanings of these definitions is needed if an advocate of freedom does not wish to confuse his auditors or the reading public. But the thoughtless employment of democracy is evidence of a pandemic disease in semantics. Exactitude matters; it is the antidote to lumpy thinking.

The second bone is that Blundell does not discuss the “handover” of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in July 1997. One cannot account for Thatcher’s lapse in this regard. It was the predecessor government that initiated talks with Red China about the future of Hong Kong in 1979, two months before she won the premiership in May (her party lost the election in 1990). Hong Kong was happily a Crown colony, and its dazzling prosperity a reproach to impoverished Mainland China and its communist dictatorship. Thatcher even flew to Peking in September 1983 to discuss the future of the colony. She hated the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, but apparently was not so discriminating about the one that ruled China.

The original issue was the status of the New Territories on the mainland per se, for which Britain had signed a 99-year lease with the Qing Dynasty. The leaders in Red China, however, insisted that any “handover” must include Hong Kong island and Kowloon, for which Britain had signed treaties of perpetuity with the Chinese monarchy. In any event, Britain, and presumably Thatcher, caved and endorsed the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984-1985 ceding all of Hong Kong to Red China, to go into effect in 1997.

I noted in a suspense novel long ago (Whisper the Guns, completed 1977, published by the Atlantean Press 1992) that “Peking would destroy Hong Kong….Or Hong Kong would destroy Peking.” An IEA editorial director predicted in 1980 that “China will go capitalist. Soviet Russia will not survive the century. Labour as we know it will never rule again.” He was right about Soviet Russia, but Labour is in power again, and Russia is governed by the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin instead of the “proletariat.” China never went “capitalist,” but fascist, since much of the nominally communist party leadership has invested stakes in enterprises that are “private” in name only. (We see the same phenomenon happening in the U.S., with the federal government’s “bailout” program, in which it has bought controlling stakes in key companies.)

Hong Kong now exists in a political purgatory. I am reminded by this whole sorry episode of two of Ayn Rand’s rules on compromise: 1) In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins; 2) In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

Red China won. Britain was under no moral obligation to deal with a liberty-hating dictatorship responsible for the murder of millions, not to mention its regular brutal suppressions symbolized by Tiananmen Square in 1989, religious persecutions, and its policing of the Internet today. Further, the current regime was not a signatory to the treaties of the 19th century, and this should have been stated from the very beginning. It remains a dictatorship today, an outlaw government as evil as Iran’s theocracy and Saudi Arabia’s medieval monarchy, propped up by Western pragmatism.

But, as a refutation of Albert Jay Nock’s fatalism, not to mention of the doctrinaire collectivism of various schools, John Blundell’s compact biography of Margaret Thatcher demonstrates how a nation can, for a time at least, reclaim itself from its past follies, and give those in it who champion a moral basis of capitalism time to marshal their courage, arguments and numbers.

After all, freedom isn’t just a matter of privatization.

Recommended: John Blundell‘s Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady (New York: Algora Publishing, 2008).