Iron Logic: Margaret Thatcher, Revised

Claire Berlinski, “There Is No Alternative”: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Margaret Thatcher straight up can be a bit much: all that certitude, all that intensity. The main title of Claire Berlinski’s most recent book, “There Is No Alternative,” a quotation from the Iron Lady herself, captures the problem well. For, in point of fact, there is always an alternative. For Thatcher, however, there are the strong-willed and the weak-willed, and although the strong-willed will not always be right, they will always prevail over the weak. When the strong-willed are wrong, as Thatcher decided was the case with the Argentine junta leader General Leopoldo Galtieri and the UK National Union of Mineworkers chief Arthur Scargill, the only thing that will stop them is a right-headedness that is even stronger.

Even if you think Thatcherian certitude was by and large in the service of the right cause, as I do and as does Berlinski, the righteousness of its proponent veers readily into self-righteousness. This is a complicated problem. On the one hand, if you were there, with Thatcher, vowing to drive the Argentines out of the Falklands or trying to break a coal miners’ strike that meant to shut down Britain, righteous is what you would need to be. This is no time for keeping a stiff upper lip, a gesture to maintain appearances. It is about finding strength and certitude at the core of one’s being and drawing it forth and out. It is the reality of unwavering conviction and its consequences. Doubt leads only to weakness, and weakness leads only to defeat.

Still, and especially from the vantage point of today, how can one look at anything even a notch or two below the existential threat of total war and find nothing worth a doubt? For the answer, Berlinski has crawled through the archives and interviewed many of the principals of the Thatcher era, and part of the story she tells is about the crawling and the interviewing. She begins with an intuition that Thatcher was a figure of lasting worldwide importance and, more narrowly, one who clearly saw the challenges of her day. She ends with conclusions to the same effect. She makes her journey from hunch to sober appraisal ours as well, leading us back through a fresh look at the issues and personalities as she asks the pertinent and the impertinent questions and challenges the assumptions of the players and their own conclusions about what happened and why. The result belongs to no genre: not a biography, not a history nor an oral history, certainly not a work of political science or economic analysis, yet somehow all of the above as mediated through the author’s lens.

What is the Thatcher legacy? What does it mean to have your views turned into a doctrine (Thatcherism) and your followers into a school (Thatcherites)? To what end did she put her ability to be by turns “Diva, Matron, Housewife, Shrew”—and unexpectedly, in the perception of some of those whom Berlinski consults, coquette, kicking off her shoes (after the cameras had left) and tucking her crossed ankles under her chair?

The answer isn’t especially hard to uncover, at least not in its broad outline. The UK was fading into shabbiness, the legacy of postwar Labour and decades of Tory me-tooism. The empire was long gone and the subject of little nostalgia, but the impression of a country that had seen better days and was now in absolute decline—as well as in decline relative to its continental neighbors, including West Germany, which was a particularly sore point—had become widespread by the late 1970s. The trade unions owned a Labour Party that remained formally committed to “common ownership of the means of production,” in the notorious Clause IV of the party constitution. Paralyzing strikes made it clear who wielded the levers of power. High inflation ate away savings and further eroded faith in the country. The government could be counted on to capitulate to union demands, which in turn would hasten the downward spiral of the economy and with it the spirits of a people who had become accustomed to expecting little more.

Now this, too, is a caricature. The British economy was in recession in 1974–75, coincident with a sharp rise in oil prices and a three-month miners’ strike, but the economy was otherwise growing throughout the decade. A perception of absolute decline was unwarranted, though the UK was indeed underperforming some other European countries. The socialism of the Labour Party constitution was hardly unique to the UK; political leaders across Europe were chasing a “Third Way” between capitalism and Communism. Inflation was horrendous in the mid-1970s, with year-over-year increases in the Retail Price Index in the mid-20 percent range. By 1979, however, the rate had fallen to single digits. Unemployment, though higher than a decade before, hovered at around 5 percent. However baleful Britons had come to feel, and however effective Margaret Thatcher would be in exploiting downward trends to make a case for fundamental change, this was not a time of terminal crisis for Britain’s political economy.

The critique Thatcher offered was heavily economic, and to this day it warms the heart of free-market economists. But at bottom, as Berlinski demonstrates, Thatcher’s critique was moral. Socialism of the sort that had infected the UK was morally wrong. It wreaked psychological devastation on those unlucky enough to be touched by it. They would absorb the habits of not working, of passivity, of resentment, of dour pessimism, of neediness. It’s one thing to talk about labor market rigidities and declines in productivity, and certainly there were economists around Thatcher who did. But for Thatcher herself, the drama was at the level of social psychology, a morality tale of a people capable of much better, at times of greatness, dragged down by an appalling and self-imposed dependency.

Needless to say, this was a top-down view of society’s ills. The frugal-minded grocer’s daughter who went to Oxford, married well, was a successful commercial chemist, and went on to great political achievement was not much inclined to sympathetic inquiry about daily life in the working class, let alone of those on the dole. She seems to have viewed her own success as proof of the possibility of anyone’s success. From such a perspective, those who do not succeed tend to be victims—to be precise, victims of socialism and its immoral and degenerate proponents. There was no need to walk a mile in people’s shoes before diagnosing their problem and proposing a solution. More than anything, I think, the permanent fury of the British left against Thatcher has its origins here.

Of course the Tory view of the anti-Thatcher rage is very different, a tale of the defense of elite privilege by those who have contrived to make themselves the beneficiaries of a socialist-tilted system: rent-seekers of the world, unite. But in the end, one does not address the charge of indifference by changing the subject. Nor does one adequately address it by spelling out a step-by-step program whereby the poor will be able to improve their condition. Poor Tim, he’s never been the same since he lost his son in the mine. That perspective is very different from: poor Tim, trapped in a dying trade and in need of retraining to join the modern economy. The underlying condescension the left detects here is real.

Thatcher does have market economics on her side, however. She never was able to make good on her promise to wring inflation from the British economy, but the coal industry was indeed dying, with unprofitable mines kept open as a result of union agitation, strikes, and flying pickets. And neither is Thatcher’s moralism without foundation: It is not especially sympathetic or compassionate, but then what kind of society would you have if you abandoned the idea that people can be the agents of their own circumstances? The answer to Thatcherism propounded by Thatcher’s rival, Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, in interviews with Berlinski, is that there had to be a way to accomplish the modernization of the British economy without Thatcher’s indifference to the real problems of real people. That almost sounds right, until one asks the obvious follow-on question: had he made it to 10 Downing Street, would Kinnock actually have delivered the economic reform along with his ample and sincere compassion? Had Thatcher’s neoliberal economics not reversed the drift toward socialism in the UK, would the gap between the exaggerated decline of Britain and the actual decline of Britain have closed in favor of the latter?

As in domestic affairs, so in foreign. Berlinski quotes Thatcher’s welcoming comment to a Congolese Marxist leader, whom she met at 10 Downing: “I hate Communists.” The translator rendered this, “Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx.” Clearly, her visceral hatred had something to do with the inadequacy and inefficiency of planned economies, but also everything to do with her abiding perception of the immorality of the system.

Berlinski paints Thatcher’s early recognition of the promise of rising Soviet Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev—not another detestable Communist apparatchik but “someone we can do business with”—as prescient and having colored the evolving view of Gorbachev in the United States, especially Ronald Reagan’s. This is a relationship that has not lacked for popular and scholarly attention. The two were close. Yet it is possible that Berlinski overstates Thatcher’s influence here.

In order to demonstrate that Margaret Thatcher matters, it is not necessary to demonstrate that Margaret Thatcher matters decisively on all issues. The UK was not the Western Front in the Cold War. Surely, Helmut Kohl’s decision to go ahead with the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in the early 1980s, in the face of hundreds of thousands of West Germans protesting in the streets, establishes the German chancellor as a more consequential figure in this regard. Nor does it seem that Reagan needed much encouragement, either in his own visceral repugnance toward Communism, or in seeing the opportunity Gorbachev presented. Similarly, Berlinski may be too vested in her own antipathy to the project of European integration to write persuasively about Thatcher’s hostility to the European project. Berlinski sees Thatcher as prophetic in her warnings but nowhere accounts for some of the grotesqueries of Thatcher’s rhetoric (in 1988, she likened Eurocrats in Brussels to Soviet central planners).

Nevertheless, one aspect of the Thatcher legacy in foreign policy remains, if anything, underappreciated, including even by Berlinski and perhaps Thatcher herself, to judge by her retrospective comments. That was her decision to go to war to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina. Berlinski rightly sees the Falklands as a key moment in Thatcherian certitude: she knew the Argentine occupation was morally wrong, and she was pitiless in her view of the Argentines. Yet she saw the question preeminently as one of British prestige. The junta’s decision to invade was therefore a product of the broader decline of Britain that she sought to rectify: “We had come to be seen by both friends and enemies as a nation which lacked the will and the capability to defend its interests in peace, let alone in war. Victory in the Falklands changed that,” Thatcher wrote in her memoir.

The stakes for her were immense. Had the war come out differently, it is doubtful her government would have survived, or her reputation. This is the prism through which Berlinski views the episode. There were other ramifications, however, and not confined even to the subsequent fall of the regime of the generals in Argentina. In the broadest sense, the war vindicated the principle that armed conquest for the purpose of territorial aggrandizement was unacceptable in international politics. The Falklands war drew a bright line, and not just around sovereign British territory in the south Atlantic.

In August 1990, Saddam Hussein attempted to cross that line with the invasion and occupation of Kuwait. It fell to George H. W. Bush to assemble a coalition to eject Saddam. In this effort, he enjoyed Thatcher’s wholehearted support and encouragement: she famously told him in an August 26 telephone call that this was “no time to go wobbly.” Berlinski passes over this episode, coming as it did near the end of Thatcher’s tenure, when the long knives were coming out against Thatcher in her own party. But as far as her influence on the world stage goes, it is a clear example, and the success of the 1991 coalition effort to drive out the Iraqis and restore the sovereignty of Kuwait stands alongside her success in driving the Argentines from the Falklands in support of an important principle—one that became much larger than the question of British national prestige.

The illegitimacy of conquest and annexation in international politics—a centuries-old taboo, to be sure, but unevenly heeded—is a norm that was powerfully reinforced in 1982 and has rarely been questioned since. So, too, Thatcher’s championing of market principles and globalization, both of which enjoy an acceptance today, notwithstanding a crisis in the financial system, that they simply did not in her day. Thatcher seems to have seen herself chiefly in terms of what she could and would do for her country, but her example in both of these areas had universal import. That’s the real reason she still matters.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.

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