Thatcher’s influence explained by a phone call
ALL the acres of newsprint that have been expended on the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher can probably be summarised in one sentence: At last, Maggie Thatcher is dead, but we live in her world now.
As brilliantly expressed by writer Ian McEwan, “what bound all opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s programme was a suspicion that the grocer’s daughter was intent on monetising human value, that she had no heart and, famously, cared little for the impulses that bind individuals into a society”.
“For those of us who were dismayed by her brisk distaste for that cosy state-dominated world, it was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her,” McEwan wrote in The Guardian.
That’s wonderfully put, and most people would probably agree. But there is a subsequent question: do we in fact live in Thatcher’s world? I think we do. I have often thought that former African National Congress Youth League leader Julius Malema would have been much less in favour of nationalisation if he had been forced to go through the ridiculous hoops through which you had to jump to get a telephone installed back in Thatcher’s time.
Around the world, people of all classes and nationalities would often agree on one thing; the national and nationalised telephone service seemed to have no comprehension that it was to be a service organisation. McEwan raises the same point, which was applicable not only in the UK but almost everywhere else on the globe.
In the times before Thatcher, there was typically only one kind of phone.
If you were lucky enough to live in a country where they were available, there was only one stateapproved answering machine.
It was illegal to put an extension lead on your phone. This seems a small thing, but it was a tangible example from the outer fringe of the new world.
Thatcher didn’t just reform state companies by privatising them.
Behind the actions there was a philosophy lurking, as there always is. And that philosophy was rooted in a new kind of economics.
The new philosophy actually began long before the action that resulted.
The philosophy was that of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, whose view of economics was amazingly broad and all-encompassing, verging on political theory.
A book by John Ranelagh, titled Thatcher’s People: An Insider’s Account of the Politics, the Power, and the Personalities, relates how, as early as 1975, Thatcher visited the Conservative Party’s research department for the first and last time.
A speaker had prepared a paper on why the “middle way” was the pragmatic path the Conservative Party should take, avoiding the extremes of left and right.
“Before he had finished, Thatcher reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. Interrupting our pragmatist, she held the book up for all of us to see. ‘This’, she said sternly, ‘is what we believe’, and banged Hayek down on the table’.”
Thatcher’s fiercest and loudest critics came from the labour movement, the biggest losers in this process. Her support came from the biggest winners, consumers. Many people are confused by Thatcher’s high level of support in working class districts, but working-class people are consumers too.
Thatcher’s insistence on freedom was not of the political type, but was rooted in the freedom to consume, which is another way of saying the freedom to be. That seems like a low revolution, but it explains why the world liked to dislike her.
As McEwan says, the world has paid for that transformation. “It’s harder-edged, more competitive, and certainly more intently aware of the lure of cash”, he writes.
The world is taking stock of that change now, but it’s a legacy that will not be undone, not because times have changed but because we have changed.
Cohen is contributing editor.