The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death came minutes after I had completed a panel discussion for a television channel on the theme, “Less government, more governance”, where the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, had been the keynote speaker. To me, it seemed the most fitting tribute to an extraordinary woman whose most enduring contributions have been in the realms of ideas and policymaking. No discussion on contemporary themes such as privatization, fiscal prudence, the ‘minimum state’ versus the megastate, and the relationship of values to entrepreneurship are ever complete without reference to the person who delighted in being called the Iron Lady. As someone wrote, in her lifetime Thatcher had become both a noun (Thatcherism) and an adjective (Thatcherite).
The real tragedy of Baroness Thatcher was that she was born in England and consequently had to confine her role to Britain’s longest serving prime minister. This is not to undermine our erstwhile Mother Country but only to suggest that had the accident of birth nurtured her as the citizen of the world’s most powerful country in the post-War world, her contributions would have been even more far-reaching. As a British prime minister, Thatcher’s long-term impact has been primarily intellectual; had she been a two-term occupant of the White House, the world would probably have been a different — and I daresay, a better and safer — place.
The tragedy of Margaret Thatcher was that, in spite of giving her three consecutive election victories, Britain never appreciated her true worth. Throughout her political career, she was dogged by facets of British public life that proved unending irritants.
The first of these was the class-ridden and hidebound nature of British Toryism — to be distinguished from genuine conservatism. A self-made grocer’s daughter from the nondescript town of Grantham who clawed her way into Grammar School and Oxford University, she had to endure the social disdain of Tory politicians who ran the party along the line of a Gentleman’s Club in Pall Mall. True, they were eventually ‘hand-bagged’ into submission but their dogged resistance to all attempts to break the mould of competitive politics created the impression that Thatcher lacked compassion and that she favoured the creation of a Britain divided between haves and have-nots. The reality was a little more complex: Thatcher wanted a nation of haves which was only possible by enlarging the size of the cake. No wonder her biggest supporters were self-made men such as the pugnacious Norman Tebbit.
The second problem she encountered was the perception that Britons were ‘entitled’ to a certain standard of living. By itself this corresponded to the contours of an aspirational society. However, the route to constant self-improvement was no longer based on old-fashioned values that dated back to Calvinism and were later to be called Victorian values. By 1979, Britain had become excessively dependant on the State to cushion against individual shortcomings. The Welfare State that was introduced with such fanfare by the Beveridge report on education and the creation of the National Health Service by Clement Atlee’s Labour government of 1945 was based on lofty principles: as a route to equal opportunities and as a guarantee against pauperization. However, the system as it evolved soon obliterated the distinction between the rewards of hard work and the benefits of voluntary or enforced idleness. The moment the Welfare State made it as rewarding for a person to take a low paid job as to stay at home, the British work ethic suffered. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for immigration from the former colonies, Britain’s low productivity levels would have been lower still.
In seeking to revive the work culture of a country that had become complacent and, consequently, uncompetitive, Thatcher had to break a mindset. She had to convince Britons that they were living far beyond their means and that the State had become bloated, over-burdened and inefficient. In subsidizing a carefree society, the government in turn was taxing too much and penalizing success.
What is remarkable is the simple communications approach Thatcher adopted in getting her message through. In the run-up to the 1979 election when Britain was plagued by strikes, wage freeze, soaring inflation and a macro-economic crisis that required the intervention of the International Monetary Fund, Thatcher used the analogy of household budgeting to demonstrate the virtues of living within your means. Likewise, and perhaps more controversially, she invoked the Victorian values of thrift and self-help to indicate that Britain had ceased being “Great” ever since it abandoned these simple rules of life. “I came to office,” she told a gathering of business leaders in 1984, “with one intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society — from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.”
Predictably, this over-weaning thrust on individualism (which included her oft-quoted remark that “There is no such thing as society”) attracted the ire of the entire intelligentsia of Britain. No other prime minister of Britain faced such unrelenting opposition from the citadels of intellectual power as did Thatcher. Apart from a handful of economists and the odd historian such as Norman Stone, British intellectuals held Thatcher in deep contempt. Oxford University voted down a proposal to confer a honorary doctorate — an astonishing act of discourtesy to a distinguished alumna. To the occupants of the High Table, she was a vulgarian who distrusted mediocrity, celebrated money and rarely budged from her certitudes — values she had, presumably, picked up from these very dons themselves.
In Thatcher’s dictionary, ‘consensus’ was a euphemism for cop out. In her mind, Britain couldn’t afford the luxury of aggregation because its post-1945 fall had been so steep. If Britain was to punch above its weight and remain a global player, it would first have to set its own house in order. That meant shedding flab and even ‘selling the family silver’— the imagery attached to the privatization of bleeding public sector companies. Interestingly, in her disinvestment programme, Thatcher wasn’t too bothered about maximizing returns to the exchequer. For her, the sale of council flats to tenants and divesting public sector equity to many thousands of small holders were part of a larger scheme to create a “property owning democracy”.
Maybe it was due to her experiences of seeing her father run a small shop that made Thatcher wary of Britain’s entrenched ‘gentlemanly capitalism’. Whether in the trade unions or the financial markets, Thatcher hated monopolies and restrictive trade practices. Just as she outlawed the closed shop and encouraged Rupert Murdoch to break down the high-cost guild practices on the shop floor, her Big Bang reforms in the financial sector opened up the capital markets to competition and globalization. If Britain still counts in the capitalist universe, it is almost solely because of the importance of the City of London. Thatcher made that possible.
On the flip side, it was due to her aggressive anti-inflationary strategies which led to soaring interest rates that Britain ceased to be the ‘workshop of the world’. Thatcher is still derided for killing off British manufacturing that had ceased to be technologically alert and financially competitive. But its demise also led to the decimation of entire communities in Scotland and the north of England. For many Britons, Thatcherism was a killer.
This may be why a detached and unsentimental assessment of Thatcher is best done by keeping the human costs out of the reckoning. “I can’t simultaneously develop an argument and appear like a human being,” a British philosopher who admired Thatcher once said. He was dead right: Thatcher belongs to the realm of ideas.