Thatcher: Reagan without the charm – or the opposition

No British figure will emerge in our lifttimes with the capacity to polarize debate quite like Margaret Thatcher. By forcing future Labour governments to embrace the market rather than the state as the central organizing locus of all productive and cultural life in Britain, Thatcher effectively ended tradition-left vs. right ideological debate domestically; indeed, she ended the Labour Party’s socialist project altogether.

As divisive and significant as Thatcher was and remains, this was a Prime Minister who never secured much more than a third of British voters’ ballots. That she managed to rule for over a decade atop a government system unchecked by anything remotely resembling an independent or effective legislative branch is a devastating indictment of Britain’s First Past The Post, Winner Takes all Parliamentary system.

The radical, irreversible and transformative legacy of her deregulation and privitization governing agenda and the capacity of her office to force it through is almost universally depicted, by friend and foe, as a reflection of her personal charisma. Not so. If anything, Thatcher was Regan without the charm. (And where he was reelected in a landslide near clean sweep of US states, the “Iron Lady’s” 1983 re-election actually saw the Tories total vote drop by almost 700,000.)

With the emergence of New Labour and the very public axing of Clause Four, Thatcher’s complete ideological victory in her homeland was confirmed. Yet this was a lady who, far from speaking for the masses, generally took a perverse and public pride in confirming her loathing for large swathes of their most vocal and independant representatives – with one cynical exception: the police. Cops were the one section of the working class for whom she was determined to provide both cover and comfort in return for their unflinching imposition of her agenda over (and onto) the heads of neighbours and relatives.

In an era when the intransigence and obstructionism of the current US Congress is routinely derided as a blight on the US political landscape, Thatcher’s legacy is a cautionary tale. This relatively unpopular leader nonetheless managed to take the spoils in three consecutive General Elections. In the face of militant opposition she nonetheless combined legal authority with a firece personal determination to impose a radical top-down remaking of Britain’s public and private life while recasting the very terms of debate (some conservative).

Today and for the next week much coverage and debate will pivot around Thatcher, the person. This obscures the real debate. While Britain muddles on without the safeguard of written constitution and forever at the mercy of its preposterous First Past the Post Parliamentary system, unpopular leaders with radical agendas lay in wait.

As Scotland considers whether or not to re-emerge from the shadow of an increasingly fractured and directionless United Kingdom, Scots could do worse than consider the opportunity to live in a country where the capacity of unpopular, unknown and unwelcome leaders to impose permanent changes on their lives is restricted by a constitution written by and for themselves.

  • Greenflag

    Ruairi ,

    ‘the “Iron Lady’s” 1983 re-election actually saw the Tories total vote drop by almost 700,000.’

    And saved by the Argentinian Generals who donated her the winning hand by their daft invasion of an island with 2,000 people and several times that number of sheep .

    The de industrialisation of the UK may have happened anyway or in a less antagonistic manner without former PM Thatcher . Britain’s manufacturing base was destroyed and it’s engineering sector gouged out and it’s coal mining communities devastated without giving much thought to what it would be replace these communities or jobs -bar Norman Tebbit’s ‘gettup on yer bike ‘ dictum .

    Britain muddles on now led by a financial sector which has it’s elected politicians in their grip much more so than any Trade Union ever had back in the seventies . And perhaps thats the legacy which Thatcher’s years in power left to the UK .

    There is no question looking back at mid 1970’s Britain that the country was on it’s uppers and a radical departure was necessary .Perhaps there was no alternative to Thatcherism that could have worked ?

    In 2013 it’s the UK thats to the forefront in defence of bankster’s rule or so it seems 🙁

  • Drumlins Rock

    The electorate recently decided to retain the fptp. So that spin is rubbish, she was the properly democatically electd leader.

  • Greenflag

    ‘she was the properly democratically elected leader.’

    Who was in the end ousted from power by a cabal of senior Tories who had enough of being hand bagged by herself .

    The British people can however be grateful for Margaret Thatcher’s political instinct for knowing just how far she could push the neo con agenda in the UK .

    When urged by the American high priest of neo conservatist economics Milton Friedman of the Chicago school of gangsta economics that she should get rid of the NHS and replace with a more American style private insurance health care system in which half the population would be unable to afford insurance premiums -Mrs Thatcher told Friedman that the British people would never accept a health care system like that of the USA .

  • Ruarai

    D Rock – you’re trolling. It’s not a post suggesting she wasn’t democratically elected (in case you really didn’t get that).

    It isn’t a post about the comparatives mertis of various electoral systems, just a reflection on how an unpopular leader could come to power – so much power – and stay for so long. And why that couldn’t happen in the US’s much more robust Congressional system for reasons we too glibly and short-sightedly lament.

  • BluesJazz

    wrong gender, but the sentiment from ‘Touch of Evil’ remains:
    “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people? ”

    Greenflag has it right. PM’s and presidents don’t have the power that we think they have.
    Milton Friedman, Henry Kissinger – they do. Keith Joseph in Maggies case.
    The petty parochial disputes about the hunger strikes here in upper isle of wight were/are a footnote in British history. About the same level as Biggs and co.

  • Harry Flashman

    In the light of the truly vile and repulsive grave-dancing that seems to have taken hold of people, here and in the wider British society, an outbreak of spittle-flecked hatred that I imagine many of the people who are indulging in it will later ponder on and regret (I hope). I would like to ask the people who are gleefully celebrating the death of an old lady they never met, this question (and as there appears to be three threads on this now, I’ll post in all three);

    What is so unique about Margaret Thatcher’s political and government record that has your hearts filling with such sheer delight at her demise?

    Compared to contemporaries like Brezhnev, Castro, Adams, Bush, Mitterand, Mubarak, Galtieri, Deng Xiao Ping, Andropov, Zia al-Huq, Ghaddaffi, Honeckker, Caucescu, Ortega, Saddam, Pinochet, Suharto, John Paul II, Mugabe, Begin, Indira Ghandi, Ayatollah Khomeini, Giscard D’Estaing, Mobuto, or their successors like Blair, Clinton, Putin, Bush (again), Chirac, Chavez, Netanyahu, Ahmadinajad, Assad, Osama Bin Laden, most of whose passing would merit a mere “oh such-and-such is dead”, what was so uniquely evil about Margaret Thatcher that has you expressing such personal and shameful glee at her death?

  • Ruarai

    You forgot the Man from Del Monte Flashman. Don’t be so exclusive.

  • Harry Flashman

    No, I forgot Yeltsin, Arafat, Mengistu, Papandreou, Kim Il-sung and a few other goons but I notice you don’t address my point Ruari, what was so exceptional about Thatcher that merits the vein throbbing, eyeball popping hatred of the Left?

    Was it because she and Ronnie exposed it for its utterly corrupt and venal nature and tossed their beloved Communism into the trash heap of history where it so rightly belonged?

  • Old Mortality

    Here’s another shortcoming of democracy. A left of centre party gains power and proceeds on a relentless expansion of the state to the point where it provides nearly half of all employment. The right of centre opposition promise to roll back the state but are defeated and in its second term the government continues to expand the state to the point where it accounts for more than half of all employment. It wins the next election comfortably.
    For the sake of democracy, every so often you need a government that will put the boot into the state.
    Thatcher was Reagan with intellect.

  • Ruarai

    OM, nice try. But you may wanna check state spending as a proportion of GDP under Reagan. It’s a massive myth that he slashed the size of the state. What he did was rearrange, i.e. redistribute, walfare to pet sectors of his constituency’s choosing.

    It’s simply wrong to assume to the “right” shrinks the state and the “left” grows it. Obama is slashing public sector jobs at record rates (stupidly, in my view) whereas Bush 2 created two massive new and unfounded welfare programs. Not to mention credit card wars.

    Clinton and Gore had their “End to Big Govt” and very controversial Welfare Reform. Today’s Republicans want a bigger state – just bigger in their pet sectors, not least: defense and the survillance and its supporting contractors.

    I’m not personally a fan of a big and bloated public sector and have spend most of my working life in entrepreneurial pursuits and none in the public sector. But I won’t listen to lectures from today’s Republicans like Paul Ryan who have spent their time in government chasing abstract economic doctrines all-the-while supporting unfunded expansion of Big State initiatives.

    I suspect that Thatcher, at heart, was much more authentic about a small state than Reagan.

  • Old Mortality

    For some reason my comment has disappeared but I was really thinking about Thatcher in the UK context alone and not in comparison with Reagan.
    I accept your observations on the US but I think the difference there was a weaker ideological division and a much lower proportion of employment provided by the state which meant that the threat to democracy was much less.
    It’s a quite different matter in the UK.
    Actually, I think Thatcher was more of a petit bourgeois reactionary than a fearless champion of the free market. She resisted the removal of mortgage tax relief, for example, and was very keen on keeping middle class tax benefits like company cars. And so terrified was she of the doctors that she shied away from NHS reform.

  • Ruarai

    OM –

    In fairness to Thatcher, while it’s always possible to cite some examples -as you did with the lack of significant NHS privatization under her – where any political actor’s actions failed to match up entirely with their profession belief, intentions and ultimately their achievements, this is frequently, in my view, less evidence of their hypocrisy so much as evidence of political limitations. One does what one can.

    The art of politics and policy making is surely about trying to identify how much one can get done without coverreaching and thereby collapsing one’s moment and thereby losing the chance to do anything. Leaders find ways to get more done that seemed possible. The rest are politicians and journeymen “advisor” know-nothings. In that sense, you raise an interesting point but not a cut and dried one.

    Thatcher coverage’s general lack of more comparisons with eras, contexts, leaders and choices in US at the sae time and, even moreso, with other Western countries, is regrettable. I say this because too often Thatcher’s years are depicted as a choice between Scargill or her; a choice between massive union power or none.

    Of course, there were many other choices – some of which can be considered with reference to actions taken and avoided elsewhere, not least Germany. Not perfect models but the comparisons and contrats help us identify which reforms were worthwhile, necessary and measured and which were excessive, brutal and political.

    PS: regarding any missing comments, the one I responded to is still there (feel free to add anything that’s not in view).

  • Harry Flashman

    I’ve just seen a letter in today’s Irish Times that gives a neat little summary of why people are supposedly still so angry about a prime minister who left office a quarter of a century ago that their grandchildren (who never knew life in Thatcher’s Britain) are now staging repulsive dances in the streets.

    Let’s line them up and see who salutes them.

    She “destroyed” British manufacturing. In 1979 Britain was the fourth or fifth biggest manufacturing nation in the world, China was nowhere. Now China is the biggest manufacturing nation and Britain is sixth or seventh. Jesus, Maggie, you wrecked the place!

    I mean if it hadn’t been for Thatcher world-beating British products like the Austin Allegro and the Hillman Hunter would be lining up on the docks of Britain to grace the world’s streets from Karachi to Caracas. British-made washing machines and stereo systems would be out-selling the Chinese and Japanese junk on offer, right?

    Next and connected, she shut down the coal industry.

    Apparently Lanarkshire and Yorkshire coal fields operate to a different economic system than anywhere else on earth. Coal mined by a British miner earning today’s equivalent of a thousand pounds a week is still more economic than coal mined by an Indonesian miner who earns five quid a week.

    The Labour party knew this and that is why in fifteen years in office they reopened all those extremely viable coal mines. Oh, wait.

    What’s next? Right she cosied up to right wing dicatators, unlike Harold Wilson who had Nicaleau Caucescu knighted. Apparently it was acceptable for the West to reach detente with the Soviet Union and its satellites and Red China and Vietnam. But Margaret Thatcher should have had no truck with Pinochet who was in power for six years before she took office and who was no worse or better than any of the other thugs around the world.

    Against this should be recorded that hundreds of millions of people who lived under Communist dictatorship idolize Margaret Thatcher for her help in their liberation.

    No, still not getting what all this faux outrage is about.

    The Falklands, oh, the big one, she sank the Belgrano. Nobody on the Left seems to hate Galitieri for sinking the Sheffield, the Atlantic Conveyor, the Sir Galahad, the Ardent, the Coventry etc, why is that?

    Barack Obama launches drones nightly on Pakistani villages killing men women and children. Will you all be drinking champagne when he dies? Bill Clinton and Tony Blair launched airstrikes on Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you have such personal, I mean personal, hatred of those men or do you save that for Maggie Thatcher?

    Just for the record the Argentine Navy was the driving force behind the Dirty War, cowardly fascist bastards the lot of ‘em, time was when the Left would have been drinking champagne at the thought of killing 300 of those bastards.

    OK I think that’s the main points, she also allowed people to own their own homes instead of being forced to rent from local governments, the bitch!, and allowed the City of London to prosper, which it did until centre-left Labour man Gordon Brown became chancellor.

    Seriously lads, is that it? Is that the reason behind your screeching hate-filled rants against a woman who hasn’t been prime minister for over twenty years? Is that what is getting your knickers in such a twist that you lose all sense of dignity and decorum and induge in repulsive acts of grave-dancing?

    Wow, and the Left used to believe they were the compassionate caring types.