The real Thatcher: What she believed in was not liberty but power

Updated
Former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher is seen at a wreath laying ceremony in London, in this Friday, Nov. 9, 2007 file photo. Former Prime...
Former British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher is seen at a wreath laying ceremony in London, in this Friday, Nov. 9, 2007 file photo. Former Prime...
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File

It’s not the done thing to speak critically of recently deceased politicians. Especially those who made history.

But in the case of Margaret Thatcher, it’s safe to set aside political and social norms.

Thatcher cared little for such norms. To sugarcoat an assessment of her life would be, well, un-Thatcherite. It might even smack of socialism.

This was a leader–a fearsome, implacable one–who believed that displays of softness were signs of weakness. In the politics of the times, they were “wet.” Thatcher saw herself as dry while many of the men around her were damp.

Take one of the best expressions of the Thatcherite philosophy: a strain of thought you could trace from her directly through to Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% fundraising speech. “There is no such thing as society,” she said. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.”

Before conservatives complain, wetly, about that quote being taken out of context, let me give you the preceding comments:

“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it is government’s job to cope with it!’ Or…‘I am homeless, the government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!”

If you are homeless, does the government have a responsibility to house you? Thatcher thought not, and there were more homeless people on the streets of London in her era than there are today.

Thatcher believed that the social safety net was itself corrupting. It made people lazy. They were takers, not makers.

If that made her sound like a character out of a Dickens novel–like Mr Bumble in “Oliver Twist,” for instance–well, too bad. In fact, it was something she embraced. “The other day,” she said in one speech, “I was asked whether I was trying to restore ‘Victorian values.’ I said straight out, ‘yes I was.’ And I am. And if you ask me whether I believe in the Puritan work ethic, I’ll give you an equally straight answer to that too.”

In her first few years in office, unemployment doubled and–despite the stock market and housing bubble of the 1980s–never returned to pre-Thatcher levels while she was in office.

To those who complained about the devastation of entire industries and communities, she had no time or sympathy. One TV reporter in the North East of England had the temerity to ask her about the 20% unemployment that blighted his region.

“Well,” she sighed. “Look. I cannot do everything. Isn’t it important for me to go around to show the success of the North East. Here are you, you belong to the North East. Why don’t you boost it? Why don’t you boost it? Why don’t you instead of asking me questions—‘oh, are they going get any more,’ ‘oh, there are a lot of unemployed here’. Why don’t you say, ‘Look, eighty per cent are in work.’ Yes, we have to try to get work for the twenty per cent who aren’t, but some of the work that is being done is fantastically successful. Don’t you think that’s the way to persuade more companies to come to this region and get more jobs—because I want them—for the people who are unemployed. Not always standing there as moaning minnies. Now stop it!”

Many conservatives might celebrate this kind of media strategy. There were plenty of GOP candidates in the 2012 primaries who built their campaigns around treating journalists’ pesky questions this way.

This was not just her way of dealing with reporters. It was Thatcher’s worldview.

According to today’s tributes, Thatcher was a champion of freedom. How many freedoms did Thatcher champion at home? That depends on whether you were considered “subversive” or not. According to the MI5 whistleblower Cathy Massiter, some 300 anti-nuclear, union and civil liberties activists were the targets of government surveillance.

Thatcher’s spies justified surveillance of domestic political opponents by saying there were Soviet sympathizers trying to infiltrate those groups. That may, or may not, have been true. But those arguments were also used by Thatcher’s friend in Chile, the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. They were used by her friends in the apartheid government of South Africa.

Yes, Thatcher was a trailblazer as an extraordinarily strong woman. Yes, she was a fearless advocate for free markets. Yes, she confronted the Soviet Union without hesitation. She brought down another brutal dictatorship in Argentina by winning the Falklands war.

She also turned selfishness into a virtue, cared little for those who could not care for themselves, and believed in something even more than liberty: she believed in power.

Her passing deserves something more than a whitewash of history. The bubble economy of the 1980s led to more children living in poverty in the U.K. The culture celebrated stock market excess over manufacturing. Thatcher made it harder for the children of working families to go to college. She raised sales taxes and lowered income tax rates, shifting the tax burden from rich to poor.

She reshaped the U.K. for sure. Along with President Reagan, she also helped reshaped the left, moving Tony Blair’s Labor Party to the center, mirroring Bill Clinton’s earlier efforts with the Democratic Party.

Her impact was still clear in last year’s American presidential election: one candidate argued that government made people dependent, while the other argued that we have a responsibility to help one another.

Thatcher would not have been happy with the 2012 result. The auto bailout was an attempt to buck the market, in her terms. The stimulus was inflationary. Unemployment insurance just encouraged people to stay at home.

More than two decades after her own conservatives threw her out of power, the politics have changed. The victors in 2012 were the moaning minnies who believed in something called society.

The real Thatcher: What she believed in was not liberty but power

Updated