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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Reflections on the Iron Lady

Ah Maggie… There is something in Margaret Thatcher’s very name that causes certain people to become apoplectic with inchoate rage. I have seen this reaction in otherwise quite rational and intelligent friends of mine, including ones who are not even British. The most egregious example of irrational hatred of the Iron Lady came while I was watching a documentary movie about the band Joy Division last year. In the film, there was a montage of news clips and suchlike, which were intended to give some feel for the anarchic state of Britain in the 1970s, the historical milieu of Joy Division’s coming of age. One clip, an image of Thatcher, flashed on the screen so quickly as to be almost subliminal. I immediately recalled the two minute hate sessions in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the assembled workers would yell and bray at an image of the evil Emmanuel Goldstein. I got the feeling that I was intended to surmise that Thatcher was somehow responsible for all the things that were wrong with Britain in the 1970s and, by extension, for Joy Division’s depressing music and singer Ian Curtis’ suicide.

There was, however, one rather insurmountable complication standing in the way of my brainwashing, namely my knowledge that Margaret Thatcher didn’t become Prime Minister until May 4, 1979, at which point Joy Division only had another year of existence left to it. Now, I’m no philosopher ― okay, I am a philosopher ― but isn’t backwards causation an impossibility? I suspect either that the film’s director was ignorant of history or else couldn’t resist getting in a cheap shot at a despised foe. I certainly get the impression that the Baroness has not made many friends among people in the arts and media.

I am rather more sympathetic to the old girl. I am certainly not one of those who worship her. For example, I suspect that there was a somewhat greater number of corrupt people around her than one finds in the average British cabinet. I am also uncomfortable with her war-mongering, which is ironic, considering that even people who hate her tend grudgingly to admire her performance during the Falklands conflict. I do like the way she stood up to the unions, which is arguably the thing for which she is most reviled. I admire the way she stood for principles, even in those instances where I happen to be in disagreement with those principles. This is in stark contrast to Mr. Blair, who was a moral vacuum: every time that little creature opened his mouth to speak, all I could hear was the wind whistling through the empty space that in most people would contain a soul. By contrast, Maggie could be brutal and callous, but an empty moral vessel she was not.

In truth, it is difficult not to acquire some small amount of respect for Thatcher when one understands a bit more about the state of British society in the 1970s. Having lived my life on the other side of the pond, I can’t say I’m an expert in this regard. Take for example the so-called “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-79, which ultimately led to Thatcher’s election. Inflation peaked in 1975 at 26.9%, which is mind-boggling by today’s standards (as I write this, Canada’s inflation rate stands at 1.4%). Prime Minister James Callaghan’s Labour government tried to put a stop to it by capping public-sector wage rises, which led to widespread strikes. The cap was 5%, which today sounds pretty high, but in the prevailing inflationary environment it would have represented a deep cut in real wages. On the other hand, the lorry drivers’ union struck in favour of a 40% pay hike, which was ludicrously above the already-absurd rate of inflation, so you can see what lunacy poor Mr. Callaghan was up against. Many of these lorry drivers drove the tanker trucks that distributed fuel around Britain. Indeed, 80% of Britain’s goods were transported by road. The government threatened to call in the army to ensure that essential supplies got through the picket lines. If all of this wasn’t enough, the gravediggers infamously chose to go on strike. After two weeks they settled for a 14% raise, but not before burial at sea was being considered to dispose of Britain’s dead. When such measures become necessary, one can only refer to the activities of the strikers in terms akin to treason.

Now, the “Winter of Discontent” happened under Labour’s watch, but decline had been proceeding apace under previous Conservative governments as well, so my remarks here are non-partisan. Indeed, there was the notorious “Three-Day Week” in 1974, instituted by Edward Heath’s Conservative government in the face of industrial “action” (I hate this euphemism ― “extortion” is the more apt descriptor) by coal miners, instigated, again, by government attempts to control rampant inflation by capping pay. Electricity consumption was limited to three days per week. My in-laws have described to me the experience of feeding their small children by candlelight in a nation that within living memory had been the greatest industrial power the world had ever known.

All of this forms the context for the following poignant quote from the very quotable Margaret Thatcher, spoken during the 1979 election campaign: “I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t.” I tend to have a soft spot for leaders who are charged with turning failing organizations around, as Lee Iacocca did for Chrysler and the emperor Diocletian did for the Roman Empire. Thus I find Thatcher’s lament over Britain’s decline rather touching, because I think it was genuine. In this context, I have come to understand her appeal during that election. At the time, it was a widely accepted view, even amongst its own civil service, that Britain was essentially ungovernable. For better or worse, Margaret Thatcher governed it. She impressed her stamp so deeply upon the nation that Lord Mandelson, the amoral mind behind New Labour’s rise to power, would say in 2002, “We’re all Thatcherites now.”

Thatcher on “Society”

Speaking of quotes, there is another example of the sort of irrational hatred people nurse for Maggie. It has to do with her (in)famous line, “There is no such thing as society.” When people throw this one out, I get the impression that I’m supposed to be struck by the woman’s utter stupidity. Of course there is such a thing as society. After all, we’re living in it, aren’t we? Maybe the words are thrown up to demonstrate her callousness (and I admit she had a callous streak). After all, if there’s no such thing as society, then there can be no such things as “social justice”, or “social welfare”, or “social solidarity”, right? Instead, she must believe in a system of atomistic self-interest, where everybody must grab what he can, and the common good be damned.

It is instructive to examine the original quotation in full, since it is rare to find a public person’s words so shamelessly edited almost beyond recognition. Actually, to my knowledge, she uttered those words twice on the same occasion. In an interview on October 31, 1987 in Woman’s Own magazine, Thatcher said,

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society [my italics]. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.”

Frankly, I don’t have very much to quarrel with in this, except that maybe she’s trying to make too many points at once. First, she is saying that too many people blame “society” for the things that are wrong with them, as well as for the wrong things that they do. Whatever “society” is, it should not be an excuse for one’s wrongdoing, nor for one’s lack of participation in one’s own life. Now, this doctrine can be taken too far, as can be done with any doctrine, but the basic point is, I think, a sound one.

Second, she doesn’t deny the existence of ties of affection to our fellows (although I certainly wouldn’t limit such ties to “families”, as she seems to imply). She should not be construed as being “anti-social”, as her critics imply, on the basis of a sentence fragment willfully taken out of context.

Third, she is saying that government does not represent some abstract metaphysical entity called “society”. It represents individual citizens ― it represents you and I.

Fourth, when she says that “it’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour,” she is not simply saying that it’s an every-man-for-himself jungle out there. We do have responsibilities towards our fellow citizens, but it’s too easy to abrogate those obligations by sitting back and letting “society” do it on our behalf. She would say that these duties can be discharged better, more efficiently, and with more compassion by individual citizens. This opinion is debatable, but it is certainly not absurd. We could put it this way: Thatcher seems to view the ideal “society” as a kind of buddy system rather than in statist terms, where a universal and abstract corporate entity takes paternalistic care of me in an impersonal fashion, while having no personal knowledge of my particular circumstances and needs. It is an alternative vision, which you can agree with or not. It is classic Red Toryism, of the David Cameron variety; it is not a Hobbesian state of nature.

This vision sheds light on the point she was making later on in the same interview:

“There is no such thing as society. There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

Thatcher and Hayek

Legend has it that while Mrs. Thatcher was sitting through another interminable meeting, listening to policy wonks and civil servants argue on and on about how to smoothly manage Britain’s inevitable decline, she reached into her famous handbag, pulled out a book, and banged it down on the table, exclaiming, “This is what we believe.” The book was Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. What a woman! What a handbag! The book is nearly 600 pages long!

Thatcher’s remarks on society can be further examined in light of Hayek’s own thoughts on the same subject. The second volume of Hayek’s three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty was subtitled “The Mirage of Social Justice”. In that volume, he critiqued the very idea that there was such a thing as “social” justice. On his view, justice was largely a matter of private law relations and did not involve society per se. Indeed, in his opinion, there was no such thing as society, in the capital “S” sense of the term.

The story illustrates an interesting tension in Mrs. Thatcher’s world view. First, there is a libertarian strain in her beliefs, which is in broad accord with those of her mentor Hayek. She believed in the old-fashioned pull yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps liberalism of the Gladstonian variety. In short, at least with regard to the economy, she believed in the libertarian’s “minimal state”. This was very much Hayek’s own attitude; he was concerned with the implications of an ever-expanding realm of affairs over which the state took cognizance in the name of Society. Redistributive schemes that take money and property from some to give it to others always claimed to do so in the name of Society. Indeed, the logical result of such an attitude was the aptly named ideology of Socialism, which Hayek spent most of his career fighting.

But there was that Red Tory side of Thatcher that did not always sit well with her inner Gladstone. Libertarianism is ― or attempts to be, with questionable success ― a highly individualistic philosophy. It has little truck with collectives, whatever their size, structure or rationale. It is an unstable philosophy, because no economic activity could ever take place without organizing human beings into structured groups, and such groups would have little cohesion if the only thing holding them together was economic self-interest. Sooner or later all libertarians must face this fact. Although Hayek claimed not to be conservative, and even felt it necessary to append a postscript to The Constitution of Liberty entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, his later writings became increasingly more Tory ― as evidenced by his eventual endorsement of (Christian) morality as a cohesive force. One must ask, “Cohesive for what?” For society? The early Hayek would have shrunk from the idea. The later Hayek embraced it, while at the same time hoping for a peerage from his friend the Prime Minister.

Deep down inside, I believe Thatcher wished for a British society structured like Grantham, the village in which she grew up, and in which her father ran his shop. I don’t believe that she necessarily wished for a Britain structured like a corporation, but many would say that this is more or less what she succeeded in creating.


  1. Another interesting post, Jamie. I'm one of those people who have a gut dislike of Maggie, she always seemed cruel and unusual to me.

    It would be interesting to compare what Britain was like before Maggie to what it's like today. My understanding is it's full of Chavs; young, uneducated single mothers who push their pram down the High Street to nick alcopops, and then get drunk in the carpark with their mates. Probably not entirely Maggie's fault, of course. They did have seven years of John Major, and then ten or so years of Tony Blur.

    I have also seen that Joy Division documentary, and my take on Maggie's appearance there is slightly different. Even though she wasn't elected when Ian Curtis was emerging as a talent, she was a known factor in British politics as leader of the opposition. Also, around that time she did utter some remarks about "being swamped by other cultures" that were highly suspect, and could have been interpreted as an endorsement of the strain of Fascism that has been present in British politics since the Thirties (e.g. Oswald Mosley, Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech, National Front, and now Nick Griffin.) Perhaps the filmmaker saw Maggie as a cause of disorder in this timeframe, and felt it was appropriate to include her. But more likely, it's just pandering to the visceral reaction that many people from the North have to Maggie. By the way, Ian Curtis always voted Conservative for some reason. Civil servants frequently do.

    I'm glad you shed some light on the "society" quote. I was not aware of the context, so that makes it seem less cruel.

    Again, a very thought-provoking post. "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle?

  2. Thanks for the Kudos Jack. I don't know if it was Aristotle. Maybe it was Pee Wee Herman?

    You're right that Thatcher was a presence before she was elected, but the fact stands that for whatever reason, they chose to show her face rather than Heath's, Callaghan's, Powell's, or Joseph Keith's. There was definitely an agenda there.

    Ah yes, I forgot about her "being swamped" remarks. In her (VERY LIMITED) defense, It's easy for people like us in a country like Canada to point fingers in this regard, but you and I don't really have the experience of living in an old culture that had been mostly homogenous for centuries. Europe in general is dealing with issues of immigration and difference that to us can seem largely like non-problems, since without immigration we never would have eixisted as a nation.

    On the other had, part of me says to a country like Britain: "Tough sh*t. You were an empire and now you have to deal with the blowback from that . Suck in in." Again, I just don't feel I can comment on these issues with anything like authority. It's one of those areas where I really feel a difference from the old world, where I really feel a sort of North American identity.