Thatcher the RevolutionaryPosted on April 4, 2013
There has, by now, been more written about Margaret Thatcher than anyone can possibly read. Some of it is fantastic. Some of it is wicked. Much of it is more about the myths, good and bad, than it is about the actual political leader.
I don’t intend to add at great length to the reams of discussion already produced, but it seems to me that perhaps her longest-lasting impact has been neglected. Indeed, it is so long-lasting that it is yet to fully play out, even now.
Margaret Thatcher changed the Right from a reactionary movement into a revolutionary one. She embraced the crucial realisation that institutions and traditions are not inherently right, and embedded elites are almost always inherently wrong.
She was not afraid to tear up conventions and topple mouldering monoliths to pass opportunities and rights to the masses.
The traditional and aristocratic elites in her party hated her for it. So did the bosses who had grown fat on inefficient state industries, where failure was something to be managed, not eradicated. The millions who had suffered the result of symbiotic, comfortable relationships between the trade unions and the conservatives who contented themselves with a top deck cabin on Britain’s sinking ship, cheered her on.
It is easy now to imagine she was one of the establishment, by simple virtue of having been in Government for 11 years. But she wasn’t – she entered Parliament against bigotry over her class and gender, and she faced exactly the same bigotry (from all sides) once she got there. Small wonder that she liked plain-speaking grammar school boys more than aristocrats with land and estates.
A marvellous note survives from ICI’s personnel department, on the rejection of her application to be a research chemist in 1948. It reads: “This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.” In the view of ICI, she didn’t know her place, she dared to speak her mind and she was therefore a threat to their established order.
They were right – if wrong to reject rather than recruit her as a result. She came to bury the elite, not to praise or preserve it.
In her time, she had successes and failures, as all politicians do. It was certainly not the case that everything she did fitted the revolutionary ideal that I’ve just laid out – and nor did all of the revolutionary steps that she wished for come to pass.
But in having the realisation that conserving what came before is not enough, she changed the direction of centre right thinking. She was no libertarian, but she set the tone for the British Right to wake up to libertarianism.
The practical results of her time in power were positive overall. There were many ways they could have been improved, but it is undeniable that she revolutionised Britain. The way she changed the course of our thinking in the coming decades, though, will eventually come to outweigh even the way she changed our lives, our rights and our economy in the decade she made her own.