Margaret Thatcher left office when I was eight years old. I remember watching Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and John Major vie to succeed her and finding the thought of a man being Prime Minister deeply odd. That in itself is a revolutionary fact – a whole generation spent their formative years knowing nothing except what it’s like to have a woman leading the country.
Thatcher herself would have wanted to be judged on the political legacy she left rather than her gender. That legacy is confused. On one hand she presided over a genuine increase in every British citizen’s freedom to own their home, own shares in companies and choose which goods and services they bought. On the other, she sought to restrict immigration, impose family values and ultimately to withdraw Britain to the fringes of Europe. More perniciously, the specific freedoms she advanced tended to benefit the middle classes far more than the poor.
The economic part of her program inspired Jo Grimond, figurehead for the post-war Liberal revival, to write ‘Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.’ Grimond’s view of Thatcher as being, at least to an extent, a liberal is undoubtedly correct. Her father, who she credited as the major formative influence on her politics, came from a Liberal-voting family and according to Thatcher’s sister, Muriel, he was “always a Liberal at heart”. Many of the economists who inspired the Thatcherite economic program would have described themselves as classical liberals rather than conservatives.
The style of liberalism that Thatchers Snr. and Jnr. adhered to was a throwback to the nineteenth century. Their classical liberalism shared a belief in competitive markets with the modern creed, but also incorporated a rejection of wealth redistribution. Thatcher committed herself to rolling back the frontiers of the state without transferring the means for those who had been state dependents to stand on their own two feet. The result was that as formerly state subsidised industries crumbled people simply moved onto benefits, helping to create many of the problems that the current government is struggling with.
Thatcher’s failure to grapple with the maldistribution of wealth in this country makes her legacy problematic for liberals. In addition, she was happy to face down militant working class trade unions, but much less able or willing to take on middle class professional bodies. As a result market-based reforms to healthcare and education, like education vouchers, that could have genuinely benefited the poor didn’t happen.
Thatcher achieved a great deal, but in the end she only did half the job and promoted the interests of half the country. As a result, Britain’s most successful postwar free marketeer ended up souring liberal economic policies for the people who have most to gain from their complete implementation – the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.
For those on the Left who want to implement market-based reforms to public services it’s Margaret Thatcher’s record that is their greatest stumbling block.