Nemesis For Socialist Anarchy
First published in The Pioneer (April 13, 2013)
Margaret Hilda Baroness Thatcher is dead. But she had departed the public arena some ten years ago because of poor health, and between then and now there was the kind of long hiatus which makes her eleven year charge as Prime Minister, between 1979 and 1990, something of “ancient” history. She was very much a partisan figure, and while some people loved her courage and resolve others found her imperious, uninformed, or even racist – given her unwillingness to sanction the apartheid regime of South Africa, and her boorish comments to an Australian minister about Indians in Fiji. One former aide, speaking of his boss’ thinking, cruelly said, “I don’t actually believe she had hidden depths,” indicating that she was more in the mold of a doer rather than a thinker. But before we dismiss her as merely a shop-keeper’s daughter acting out her British middle-class values, we should acknowledge that she was trained as a research chemist, got a law degree, and was Secretary of State for Education and Science in the Edward Heath government before she led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979 and became Prime Minister.
Thatcher entered the political arena at a time when Britain was very much in decline. The 1970s were especially challenging as labor unions held government and industry hostage, and British leaders seemed to twiddle their thumbs as national and international edifices their countrymen had built over centuries began to wither away. Their efforts at leading the world anew floundered on both self-doubt and the changing dynamics of the Cold War era where the Soviets and the Americans called the shots, and the British became merely America’s poodle, yapping away at the world when America needed it to. Measured against other countries and competitors Britain was not doing well. Sure, industrial production in England had increased after the WW II, but it was not as much as in say France, and surely not the U.S., and even more ominously not as much as in the countries that were defeated in the war: Germany, Japan, and Italy, where the smoke stacks were belching more and the furnaces warmer.
Then there was the political divide. The British socialists were in full cry and demanded that state control of industry and major services was the only panacea to Britain’s economic woes. The Tories wanted a re-evaluation of the state, especially the welfare state. Ironically, event the conservatives in Britain in the early 1960s wanted to recast the role of the state through state planning! Britain grew at a slower rate in the 1960s than in the 1950s, and the unions which supported the Labour Party, did not want Britain to join the European Union. To sum up, the state of the state was both dull and lethargic when the “Iron Lady” took charge.
Thatcher believed that England was in serious decline, and that she had the mandate to steer the country in a new direction with a series of political and economic initiatives. What she, and Reagan in the U.S., did in the 1980s some say has come to bite us bad now! Reagan and Thatcher hit it off both at the personal level and ideologically: both went after labor unions, encouraged deregulation of the financial sector, and loosening state control and oversight of industry and business. They lowered the income tax and increased indirect taxes, and both sought limits on public spending though in Reagan’s case it was more talk than action.
Looking back, we have to acknowledge that Thatcher was right in acknowledging the slippery slope to labor-led anarchy where people got paid whether they worked or not, and where the welfare state siphoned away any additional income generated by the economy. In the 1970s, to take the Indian example, when the CPI-M led West Bengal was in full cry, this writer heard horror stories where bank officers got roughed by the clerical staff, where clerks walked around shirtless in the load shutdown inspired sweltering heat of the Calcutta summer, and where books of the branch were not balanced not just for days but for months. Any attempt at resolving the problems and streamlining work was scuttled by the “workers” who demanded more and more overtime to do less and less. To counter a similar situation in Old Blighty, Thatcher took on the unions, and in a major victory over the National Union of Mineworkers she was able to bring them to heel, closing down unprofitable mines, and making strikes illegal. To her credit, while she privatized British Steel and other state-owned industry, she was extremely chary of privatizing British Rail, which was done at the end of her tenure and which many termed “a disaster”.
Margaret Thatcher, one might surmise, sought to mold herself in the image of a female Churchill – bold, uncompromising, resolute, and visionary. In many ways she was that, though she did not have the natural talents of the cigar-chomping wartime Prime Minister who had a photographic memory, spoke extemporaneously and powerfully, and painted and wrote as well as a master.
Margaret Thatcher was the longest serving Prime Minister of England in the 20th century, and the only female prime minister till now. Her persona and her politics not only grated against the nerves of some of her political opponents, but ran counter to the vision and goals of many feminists as well as those of her own party leaders. Thatcher refused to give the feminist movement any credit for her climb up the political ladder. Maggie would have been completely dismissive of what is now the traditional left/liberal/feminist agenda, and she would not have engaged with those who claimed for themselves high moral pedestals. She, as someone observed recently, was the “wrong type of woman for progressives and the wrong type of Tory for conservatives”. Development and economic policy-wise, those who sought and seek more unfettered growth of the private sector saw in Thatcher a leader who had the courage to take on entrenched vested interests. She changed the British economy, and brought a new vigor and strength. However, two decades later, they and we will have to acknowledge that without effective government oversight individuals and businesses are apt to run the economy to the ground even as they fill up their own pockets.
The act of balancing private and public interests is a delicate one, and the politics of the left and right has played out locally and globally in bloody ways since 1917. The Marx-imagined state, instead of withering away, simply got bigger and more brutal. The conservative belief in free enterprise and free market capitalism, we have also seen, is equally make-believe and suspect, and cannot be sustained or remain healthy without a good dose of state control. Historians writing about twentieth century statecraft will therefore look at the legacy of Margaret Thatcher as a mixed one. But she will be remembered as a determined woman who was not afraid to rule and not shy about where she wanted to take her country. Paeans have already been written by conservative commentators making her an epitome of individual striving, moral uprightness, and unwavering courage. The Left/Radical commentators have gone the other extreme, with some of them even seeking to deny her a state funeral because she was the “most socially destructive prime minister of modern times”. It is therefore left for those of us in the middle to provide balance in the estimation of the work and legacy of the “Iron Lady”.