Margaret Thatcher and the cult of personality

Robert Henderson

Two Cults

Margaret Thatcher was the subject of a cult of personality. This was not the result of calculated  propaganda, but simply the creation of her extraordinary personality. Because the cult of personality developed not in a totalitarian state but a country where public opposition was possible, there were two cults of personality attached to her in a relationship which mimicked the matter/antimatter duality. These were the Thatcherite religious believers fulfilling the role of matter and the Thatcher-hating Left  acting as the antimatter.

Both the matter and the antimatter Thatcher cults were  potent.  The religious believers  bowed down before the great god MARKET (and Thatcher was his prophet) and, when things  went wrong,  did what all religious believers do until they lose their faith, denied reality by simply pretending something had not happened or by giving a calamity some  absurd spin to ”prove” the god had not failed.

For the Thatcher-hating Left she was the personification of the Devil and consequently credited with all manner of evil,  but, as is the way with personifications of the Devil, never portrayed as anything but powerful, a being possessed of a political juju (doubtless ensconced in her handbag) which could wreak any degree of havoc  with all that the Left held dear is if she so chose.   Like all those who believe in evil spirits the Thatcher-hating Left ascribed every act of ill fortune to her.

The attitude of both bands of cult followers was essentially superstitious, attributing powers to the woman which she did not, and often could not,  have.  The religious Thatcherites imagined she could  speak the spells which would miraculously convert Britain from a  country making silly old fashioned things such as steel, ships and cars and mining coal to a country stuffed to the gunnels with entrepreneurs creating new non-unionised service industries; the Left saw her as a witch practising black magic to contaminate and transmogrify the world they knew.

Because the Thatcherite religious believers  and her leftist haters  could not and still cannot see past the woman’s   gigantic political personality,  they made and continue to make the same mistake, namely, seeing the two cult figures as the reality while ignoring  her actual policies and their outcomes.

The reality of Thatcher

The reality of Thatcher is that objectively she achieved little if any of her wishes. It is a bitter irony for the woman (and Thatcherites generally)  that her policies were of a nature which  undermined the  ends  she espoused.  Perhaps the prime example is Thatcher’s  avowed wish to see a strong and wealthy Britain  whilst creating through her  commitment to laissez faire economics the very circumstances that would weaken the country. Under her economic regimen and its lingering aftermath ever since Britain  has become ever less self-sufficient in strategically important economic activity such as the production of  food and energy  and vast swathes of British business were  either bought up by foreigners or ceased to operate from Britain because of offshoring and the absence of government action to protect our own economy.   She simply did not understand that you could not have laissez  faire in both the domestic and international economic sphere and have a strong nation state.   Had Thatcher  known any economic history she would have realised that, but even without such knowledge  common prudence should have told her that a country which is dependent on others for necessary goods and services is a weak country.  Moreover, one of her claimed tutelary heroes Adam Smith readily understood there are things which are either strategically important such as armaments or social goods which are  never going to be supplied universally by private enterprise such as roads.  Thatcher never gave any indication of realising that Smith was not the unrelenting free marketer of her imagination.

Thatcher’s  failures in making policy to  achieve her ends were legion. She  destroyed much of British heavy industry in the belief that those made unemployed would rapidly be re-employed in private sector jobs. The new jobs did not materialise and she was reduced to presiding over massive and long lasting unemployment  which she funded with North Sea oil and gas tax revenue and the receipts from privatisation, whilst fiddling the unemployment figures shamelessly. She sold off state owned  services  (which belonged to the community as a whole not to the government)  in the belief that service would  be improved . It was  not. Instead vital services such as the railways and the provision of energy and water became ever more expensive whilst providing poorer service and less employment. She introduced so-called private business methods into the NHS and higher education in the belief that they would become more efficient. The result was massive increases in  bureaucracy and an ever climbing  cost of  both the  NHS and higher education and a substitution of the pursuit of  money for the public service ethos because money was attached to individual patients and students. She introduced the Community Charge or “Poll Tax” in the belief that it would be fairer than the old domestic rates. The result was widespread unfairness because it took no account of an individual’s means  and  provoked the nearest thing to a national movement dedicated to the non-payment of taxes known in modern times.  She raged against  EU interference in British affairs but signed up Britain to the Single European Act (SEA)  in the belief that it would create a genuine single market within the EEC.  It  did not create such a market and merely presented the EEC with an open goal for ever more audacious sovereignty grabs.  A supposed opponent of further mass immigration, her signing of the SEA also opened the door to free movement within the EU, a situation worsened by her strategy of dramatically widening the EEC.  She signed Britain up to the  She embraced “Care in the Community” for the mentally ill or disabled on the grounds that it was more humane than keeping  such people in long-stay institutions. The result was thousands of people left to largely fend for themselves in the outside world who were quite incapable of doing so. She sold off great swathes of social housing (which belonged to the community as a whole not to government) to tenants in the belief that this would result in a “property owning democracy” whilst more or less ending the building of new  social housing.  The eventual result was the growing housing emergency we have today. She instigated the disastrous “light touch”  regulation of the financial services  industry by abolishing credit controls and  failing to meaningfully regulate the  industry meaningfully after “Big Bang”  in 1986  which  effectively de-regulated the London Stock Exchange to bring in a brave new world of free trading (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financialcrisis/8850654/Was-the-Big-Bang-good-for-the-City-of-London-and-Britain.html)  with the dire results with which we are now living.

Even in the few areas where she was ultimately successful such as the Falkland’s War she was at best negligent in ignoring warnings from the Foreign Office of a growing threat to the Falklands  in the months leading up to the invasion and even after the expeditionary force had been dispatched  she agreed to a US organised plan which would have not offered the Islanders either self determination of or any meaningful security (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/10008116/Margaret-Thatcher-how-she-took-on-the-men-and-won.html).

There were also acts of omission and collusion with policies with which she supposedly fundamentally  disagreed.  Most importantly, Thatcher failed utterly to carry her strong views against further mass immigration into her period in office. Not only that but, as already mentioned,  she made things much worse on that front by signing up to the Single European Act. She agreed to the institutionalisation of political correctness in public life, especially in the Civil Service, schools and universities. In addition, she allowed the “progressive” educational establishment to destroy a first rate  school examination system  by swopping the certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) and O(rdinary) Levels  for the dangerous absurdity of the General Certificate of Education (GCSE), an exam   supposedly for all 16 year olds but which was in reality two exams masquerading as one.  Despite the fact that Tory support rested heavily on the countryside  she allowed the de-regulation of rural bus services to occur  which reduced them so  severely that to live in countryside meant owning and driving a vehicle or at least having access to someone who did.  To make matter worse, this was done in tandem with a wilful neglect of the then nationalised railways.

The protests after her death were unsurprising

Just based on her economic disasters the uproar surrounding her death is unsurprising.  In the space of a few years she raised the unemployment  pay claimant count from 1.4 million when she took office in 1979 to 3.2 million by 1986 (http://www.economicshelp.org/macroeconomics/unemployment/measuring_unemployment.html) That bald figure is startling enough but the reality  is ten times worse. She  must have known her policies would result in mass unemployment,  at least in the short term, when she removed the financial support of taxpayers from nationalised industries or sold them off in the belief that private business would be able to do the job more efficiently with  much smaller workforces.   Further, as these industries were concentrated in areas where they were by far the dominant employer she should  have realised that structural unemployment would be created  in many parts of the country.  To imagine, as she did, that new jobs would rapidly sprout in the areas showed  a  shocking lack of understanding of economic history which has no example of such a thing happening on the scale required in 1980s Britain.

What is certain is the fact that she had no doubt about the destructive possibilities of laissez faire economics, viz:

“Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ is not above sudden, disturbing, movements. Since its inception, capitalism has known slumps and recessions, bubble and froth; no one has yet dis-invented the business cycle, and probably no one will; and what Schumpeter famously called the ‘gales of creative destruction’ still roar mightily from time to time. To lament these things is ultimately to lament the bracing blast of freedom itself.” — Margaret Thatcher, Statecraft P. 462

A politician of conviction?

The idea that merely having convictions is praiseworthy is a rum one. Hitler, Stalin and Mao had convictions. But even  if the  quality of a person’s convictions is ignored, this is one of the most mystifying of myths attached to Thatcher.  The reality was she frequently changed her position on the most important issues she faced or adopted methods which went against her avowed policies when she had created a mess, most notably with the massive rise in unemployment resulting from her slash and burn approach to the British economy which greatly  increased the benefits bill for many years and left people unemployed for years, in many cases for decades.

The most significant publicly  admitted changes of policy  were on immigration, the Europe and global warming.  Before the 1979 election she had spoken of the need to control immigration  because the country was in danger of being “swamped”:

‘If we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.’

She went on to say, ‘The British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.’

 ‘If you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers. […] We do have to hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration…’ (http://www.runnymedetrust.org/histories/race-equality/59/margaret-thatcher-claims-britons-fear-being-swamped.html)

Once in office she did nothing despite still feeling strongly about the subject in private  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/margaret-thatcher/6906503/Margaret-Thatcher-complained-about-Asian-immigration-to-Britain.html).

On Europe she went through the following metamorphosis:

–          1975 she campaigned and voted for Britain to remain within the European Economic Community (EEC – the EU was only formed  by  the Maastricht Treaty in 1993).

–          By 1980 she was convinced that the EEC was not  acting in Britain interests.

–          By 1986 she had  signed the Single European Act giving the EEC immense powers to interfere  with Britain’s sovereignty.

–          In the late 1980s she adopted the policy of enlarging the EEC which meant that a vast new swathe of workers from poor countries would be allowed free movement within the  EEC.  The effects of this also allowed the federalists to press for things such as Qualified Majority Voting on the grounds that the EEC/EU had become too unwieldy to operate under the original  rules and to generally press forward with the creation of a United States of Europe.

–          In 1990  she took the UK into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)  despite being opposed to a single currency to which the ERM was a stepping stone with the pound effectively shadowing the Deutschmark.

The idea that Thatcher only realised what the EEC was after taking office in 1979 is simple nonsense. Thatcher’s speech to the  Conservative Group for Europe at the start of the Wilson referendum on the EEC clearly shows her viewing the EEC as far more than a  simple free trading area, viz:

That vision of Europe took a leap into reality on the 1st of January 1972 when, [ Edward Heath] Mr. Chairman, due to your endeavours, enthusiasm and dedication Britain joined the European Community.

 * The Community gives us peace and security in a free society, a peace and security denied to the past two generations.

 * The Community gives us access to secure sources of food supplies. This is vital to us, a country which has to import half of what we need.

* The Community does more trade and gives more aid than any group in the world.

* The Community gives us the opportunity to represent the Commonwealth in Europe. The Commonwealth want us to stay in and has said so. The Community wants us.

 Conservatives must give a clear lead and play a vigorous part in the campaign to keep Britain in Europe to honour the treaties which you, sir, signed in Britain’s name.

 We must do this, even though we dislike referenda. We must support the [ Harold Wilson] Prime Minister in this, even though we fight the Government on other issues.

 We must play our full part in ensuring that Conservative supporters say “Yes to Europe”. (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102675).

In any case, the Treaty of Rome left no room to believe it was merely a free trade organisation.  No one could read that and be in any doubt  that the intention was to create a United State of Europe. Thatcher, the supposed obsessive  who was a stickler  mastering a subject,   should have read it before the referendum.

As for global warming, she started the ball rolling whilst in office and then reversed her position in her autobiography published in 2003. Here she is speaking to the  UN general assembly, in November 1989:

“What we are now doing to the world … is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways. The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.

“The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out. Those countries who are industrialised must contribute more to help those who are not.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/apr/09/margaret-thatcher-green-hero)

By  the time she had published her political work Statecraft in 2003 she was thinking along these lines:

“The doomsters’ favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong. Second, we all have ideas about the weather: traditionally, the English on first acquaintance talk of little else.

“Third, since clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale, it provides a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism. All this suggests a degree of calculation. Yet perhaps that is to miss half the point. Rather, as it was said of Hamlet that there was method in his madness, so one feels that in the case of some of the gloomier alarmists there is a large amount of madness in their method.” (http://www.masterresource.org/2013/04/thatcher-alarmist-to-skeptic/).

There were other issues where her public position was at odds with her actions, for example, the troubles in Northern Ireland and the rule of law. Thatcher claimed that there would never be a surrender to  IRA terrorism.  Yet after she narrowly escaped death in the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing in 1984 (12 October)  the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed little over a year later in November 1985 giving the Republic of Ireland government  a say in what happened in Northern Ireland and committing the British Government to accepting the principle of a united Ireland if a majority were in favour. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/15/newsid_2539000/2539849.stm). There was no obvious reason for such a change of heart beyond the fear generated in Thatcher by the bombing of the Grand Hotel.

As for the rule of law, far from respecting it as she claimed, she laid the basis for the ever increasing authoritarianism of the British state by permitting the police to act unlawfully during the miners’ strike by stopping miners and their supporters from travelling across the country and turning a blind eye to any police excesses as they clashed with the miners and their supporters.

A politician of conviction? Only if you define  someone as such who runs from one position to another while vigorously embracing each  successive position regardless of its  contradiction of a previous  advocated policy or set of ideas.

Nor was she someone who would take responsibility for her actions. When she found her policies were a disaster she either claimed she had been badly advised or cheated (for example, the Single Market, global warming) or attempted to ignore the mess she had created  (for example, enduring mass employment and ) by misrepresenting it, or in the case of unemployment, using North Sea oil  tax revenues,  the privatisation receipts and blatant manipulation of the unemployment statistics to paper over the unemployment cracks.

Why did Thatcher get things so horribly wrong? 

Why did Thatcher get things so horribly wrong?  Her behaviour  strongly suggested that she was seriously lacking  psychological and sociological insight. This meant she constantly made horrendous mistakes such as trusting the EU over the single market and imagining in truly infantile fashion that millions of jobs shed from heavy industry and coal mining would be rapidly replaced by “modern” jobs in the service and light industry sectors.  Her record in choosing people to support or employ was also dismal.

Far from being a free thinker her cast of mind  made her the ready captive of an ideology:

“…as Leader of the Opposition MT once cut short a presentation by a leftish member of the Conservative Research Department by fetching out a copy of The Constitution of Liberty from her bag and slamming it down on the table, declaring “this is what we believe”. (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive/Hayek.asp).

It is dangerous to trust anyone who is  susceptible to ideological capture for the simple reason that all ideologies, whether sacred or profane, are inadequate descriptions of and guides to reality.    This means that ideologues constantly have to try to fit reality within the ideology rather than having  reality driving their choices.  Those which include economics are particularly dangerous because their reach is so vast.

Ideologies are the prime example of Richard Dawkins’ memes, mental viruses which capture the individual and direct their thought and behaviour.  Those who are captured by them by them give up their mental autonomy.  That speaks either of a character trait such as that of requiring a source of authority for choices or a  weakness of intellect which seeks ideological  algorithms  developed by others to answer political  questions because the person’s capacity to answer the questions by rational pragmatic examination based on their own knowledge and intelligence  is inadequate.

How good was  Thatcher’s mind? She  is frequently  represented by her adherents as ferociously intelligent.  This view  will not stand up to examination.  She read chemistry at Oxford but only achieved a second class honours degree (http://womenshistory.about.com/od/thatchermargaret/a/Margaret-Thatcher.htm).  Oxford at the time did not divide the second class degree into  upper and lower second classes  and had a fourth class honours division instead.  The old Oxford second  is generally taken to be the rough equivalent of an upper second.  That raises questions over her intellect.  Chemistry at degree level in the 1940s had not become heavily mathematized  as it now is.  Diligence would get a student a long way. This   quality Thatcher  reputedly  had in spades. If she did, the fact that she only took a second suggests that she was not very intellectually gifted. That is particularly the case when it is remembered that she went up to Oxford during wartime when competition for places was severely reduced because so many of the potential male students went into the forces rather than to university. A beta plus mind at best.

What people probably mistook for intelligence was her avid seeking and retention of data. But it is one thing to learn facts or arguments parrot fashion, quite another to mould them into a coherent intellectual whole.  Based on her frequent renunciation of previous positions, it is reasonable to assume that she simply did not have the intellectual wherewithal to put the data she took on board to any useful purpose. She certainly never  gave no indication that she ever saw the bigger picture.

There were also the question of her how fitted she was by experience to fill the role she played, that of the hard-core economic libertarian forever seeking ways of making people take responsibility for their lives both socially and in their work.  When I look at the present Tory front bench I have a similar feeling to that  which I experience when thinking of the Nazi leadership.  The Nazis had a rather noticeable lack of Aryan types amongst them: the present Tory front bench is remarkably short on people who have been entrepreneurs or indeed of people who have any great  experience of work outside the narrow confines of politics.

Margaret Thatcher was a forerunner  in this respect. She graduated from Oxford in 1947.  For the next four years she worked for various private companies as a research chemist. At the age of 26 she married a millionaire. He funded Thatcher’s career change from chemist to barrister. She took the bar exams in 1953 and practised (specialising in taxation) until 1961, the last two years of the period occurring after she was elected to the Commons in 1959.  After that it was all politics.

Thatcher’s experience of the real world of work is at best four years as a research chemist and eight years as a barrister.  However,  being married to a millionaire at the age of 26 rather dulls the idea of her living a normal working life.  The truth is she made her way not as a self-made woman but by the traditional route  for female advancement of marrying a rich man.

There was no need for Thatcherism

The really angering thing about Thatcher’s time in No 10 is that she could have done what she was elected to do, tame the unions, without engaging in the deliberate wholesale destruction and alienation of much of Britain’s heavy and extractive industry and the placing in private hands of the public utilities, especially those of gas, electricity and water.   This was because Thatcher had the great good fortune to arrive as Prime Minister just as North Sea oil and gas was coming on-stream in large quantities.  Those revenues alone would have provided any government with a very large safety net to finance temporary difficulties caused by serious confrontations with the larger trade unions.   She also enjoyed  the very large receipts from the big privatisations such as gas, electricity and BT.  No British government has ever had such a sustained revenue windfall as hers.

There was absolutely no economic need to destroy so much of British industry or place much of the state-owned  organisations  into private hands.  Continental countries such as Germany and Italy retained their shipbuilding; France,  Germany and Italy retained a native mass production car industry.  Germany still has a substantial coal mining industry. Privatisation proceeded at very different speeds throughout Europe.  That no other large industrialised  country followed Thatcherite policies  with anything like the speed or fervour of Britain  yet  survived and frequently out competed Britain economically  demonstrates that Thatcher’s policies were not a necessity but simply an ideological choice.

Her government could have spent the 1980s taming the unions sufficiently to prevent the excesses of the 1970s.  It is true that the very high level of unemployment  of the 1980s was an aid to this, but it was probably not the main rod which largely broke the Trade Unions’ back.  Home ownership had been rising steadily throughout the twentieth century and by the time Thatcher came to power in 1979 not far short of 60%. The highest it reached even after Right To Buy was only 69% – the idea that it was Thatcher who made it possible for the working man and woman to own their homes for the first time is another myth about her(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/houseprices/10005586/Home-ownership-falls-for-first-time-in-a-century.html).  .

The fact that so many people were owner occupiers with mortgages  meant that they were much less willing than they had been to strike at the drop of a hat because they feared losing their home.  Even those who were not owner occupiers had much more to lose in terms of general comfort, security and prospects of greater opportunity for their children than had been the case before, say, 1939.  To take just one example, children from poor families had a greater opportunity than ever to enter  higher education. This growing reluctance to come  out whenever the union called for  strike  was why the National Union of Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was not willing to hold a ballot of all  his members before calling a strike. He feared such a ballot would be lost.

The combination of this increasing  reluctance to strike amongst union members together with the legal restrictions on unions such as no secondary picketing and severe penalties for strikes called with a formal ballot would have been enough to end the anarchy which prevailed in the 1970s.

Apart from the social and economic upheaval of the Thatcher years, she can also be blamed for a continuation of the damage she caused both in the long term structural unemployment but also in the fact that she subverted  the Labour Party so that it adopted most of what was damaging from the Thatcher period, most particularly in the adoption of her devotion to laissez faire economics and in Labour’s all too ready acceptance of the EU  elite’s desire for comprehensive political and economic union.

The 1980s could have been so very different.  The revenue from North Sea Oil could have been put into a sovereign wealth fund which  by now would be worth hundreds of billions.  If  the Single European Act had not been signed the movement towards a  federal EU would have been halted in its tracks  (national vetoes applied to this area of decision making  at the time). If Thatcher had not argued for an ever wider EEC the poorer nations from the East would not have joined and the immigration threat they carry would not exist.  Indeed,   Britain could have left the EU entirely because the Tory Eurosceptics could have allied with Labour under Michael Foot or even Neal Kinnock. New social housing could have been built with the proceeds of Right to Buy thus obviating to a large degree the shortage of housing now.  If the nationalised industries had been sustained there would have been no serious structural unemployment.  Had proper attention been paid to the strategic importance of  essential economic areas such a food and energy self-sufficiency we should not be so dangerously reliant on foreigners for such things today.  Most importantly, if  that had been the general thrust of politics in the 1980s it is doubtful in the extreme that Blair and NuLabour would ever have arisen.

The tragedy of Margaret Thatcher is that she had a sense of patriotism and probably genuinely thought she was doing the best for her country at the time she implemented or advocated policies (her honesty when policies went wrong was  another matter).  The problem was that her judgement  and understanding was all too often hideously wrong or defective. She so often provided comforting rhetoric, especially on Europe and immigration,  but she never delivered the goods. The fact that she was such an overpowering political figure made things worse because it meant she could steamroller her cabinet on most issues at most times. It is difficult to think of another politician  in the past three centuries who wrought so much damage on Britain.

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Comments

  • Carl  On April 25, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    “strategically important economic activity such as the production of food and energy”

    Poor Maggie, if only she had a wise central planner like David Henderson at her side. He’s not a communist, but he does know which industries are profitable, which are strategically important etc. Presumably he is himself an extremely rich man – because he must put his money where his mouth is. No?

    The free market is a religion, so is socialism, so is everything except what I believe. You all have prescribed “ideologies” while I have pragmatic, rational common sense. Of course!

    “Instead vital services such as the railways and the provision of energy and water became ever more expensive whilst providing poorer service and less employment.”

    A whole galaxy of bizarre assumptions packed into one delicious sentence.

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