What can the left learn from Margaret Thatcher?
Every life is special and some people’s lives are extraordinary and hugely influential. Mrs. Thatcher’s life certainly was. Her legacy and her model of leadership will rightly now be debated in the weeks and months to come. It probably goes without saying that we opposed Margaret Thatcher’s ideology and her political vision. Britain is a much more unequal and divided nation as a result of her leadership. Nonetheless, it is still useful to ask the question, what can we learn from it?
Firstly, firm belief can be combined with sufficient popularity to make transformative change happen. The easy analysis was that she was a simple free market dogmatist and some well-meaning groups and individuals want to construct a simplistic left wing mirror image of her, as if all it took for her to succeed was rock solid belief. Yet there was undoubtedly more to her success than this, she had a clear ideology and she went about the implementation of it in a careful and clever way. She was a pragmatist in that she knew where she wanted to go but deployed great skill in taking her party and much of the country with her. It may have turned into hubris at the end over the poll tax and Europe but by then much of her work was done through privatisation, council house sales, the big bang financial deregulation and the undermining of the trade union movement. It was a shrewd hegemonic project.
Yet much of her project was divisive and dogmatic, those on the left must ask themselves the obvious and difficult question that flows from this, does a transformational political project always mean a divisive one? What is the right mixture of ideology and pragmatism? And where does pluralism fit in? If she had involved more in creating her project then would it have been even more enduring? This is not an easy question to answer but means always shape ends and her leadership style, one that systematically crushed all opposition cannot be the basis of a good society for the left. Ours is a more complex and interesting path to tread.
Marx said that we ‘make history but not in conditions of our own choosing’. Thatcher was lucky in that she was the right free market leader just when the post-war settlement was unravelling. She also made her own luck through the way she encouraged think tanks and other politicians to help build the intellectual space and organising capacity for her neo-liberal nirvana. The most powerful political quotes of our age come from her, none less so than her mantra that ‘there is no alternative’, that ‘there is no such thing as society’ and her belief that ‘the economy is the means, the goal is to change the soul’, a phrase that demonstrates quite stunning political ambition.
Thatcher knew that people had competing instincts – they could be caring and cooperative or selfish and individualistic. Her job was to destroy the institutions which supported the former and build new ones that brought out the latter side of peoples’ character. It was a political lesson that New Labour failed to learn as they refused to build enduring institutions that would embed social solidarity. The current government on the other hand, has learnt this lesson and the latest cuts to social security and the ‘skivers versus strivers’ language can be seen as part of this legacy.
Mrs. Thatcher had her view of what she wanted the nation to be. It was genuinely felt and unless we understand what it was and why it resonated with so many then we will fail to develop a popular alternative. The parable she used was that of the Good Samaritan, who refused to walk by on the other side of the street but instead stopped to help those less fortunate than them. Put simply, the right think concentrations of wealth are natural and allow people to be charitable, while the left favours a much more formal collective and rights based approach to justice. Yet both infer a love of ones neighbour which we need to understand even though the measures she promoted were so divisive. She understood too the power of simple language – by cleverly conflating household and national economies and talking relentless about freedom she secured the cultural terrain for her project.
Furthermore, you cannot ignore the immense achievement of becoming the first female Prime Minister in such a male dominated environment. At the same time it is clear that many of her policies undermined the position of women in society.
We live in a utopia – it’s just not our utopia. It is the utopia of Mrs. Thatcher and her acolytes who dared to dream their free market dreams. We should take inspiration from her life and her work, that countries can be transformed and made to fit a set a beliefs. She said that ‘socialism never dies’. She knew the need to be social was a deep human trait that she wanted to confine to individual good will. Our job is to construct a socialism that resonates with our times, which recognises that ends can never justify means and which matches her ambition and strategic brilliance.