British Libertarian Stephen Berry and Sean Gabb discuss Margaret Thatcher.
Much will be said over the next few weeks about the “achievements” of Margaret Thatcher. These will probably divide between Daily Mailish eulogies and Guardianesque whines. My own view is that she was a bad thing for England.
SB: No, on the whole I think she was a good thing.
SG: She started the transformation of this country into a politically correct police state. Her Government behaved with an almost gloating disregard for constitutional norms. She brought in money laundering laws that have now been extended to a general supervision over our financial dealings. She relaxed the conditions for searches and seizure by the police. She increased the numbers and powers of the police. She weakened trial by jury. She weakened the due process protections of the accused. She gave executive agencies the power to fine and punish without due process. She began the first steps towards total criminalisation of gun possession.
SB: Thatcher was a Tory not a libertarian. The fact that her government introduced some illiberal measures confirms that. Personal freedom has never been the number one concern of Tories or most politicians. At one time they did not like homosexuals and legislated accordingly. Now they don’t like smokers and legislate accordingly.
SG: She did not cut government spending. Instead, she allowed the conversion of local government and the lower administration into a system of sinecures for the Enemy Class. She allowed political correctness to take hold in local government. When she did oppose this, it involved giving central government powers of supervision and control useful to a future politically correct government. She extended and tightened the laws constraining free speech about race and immigration.
SB: But she did not increase government spending either! Her government also reduced inflation dramatically and cut the national debt considerably. A rare combination in the modern world.
Who is this Enemy Class? Short of closing down the academies in the UK and US, I am not sure what she was supposed to do to stop the this bizarre epidemic called political correctness.
SG: Her encouragement of enterprise never amounted to more than a liking for big business corporatism. Genuine enterprise was progressively heaped with taxes and regulations that made it hard to do business. Big business, on the other hand, was showered with praise and legal indulgences. Indeed, her privatisation policies were less about introducing competition and choice into public services than in turning public monopolies into corporate monsters pampered by the State with subsidies and favourable regulations – corporate monsters that were expected in return to lavish financial rewards on the political class.
SB: Exchange controls were abolished in 1979 shortly after she took power. I don’t mind ‘big business’ per se. It becomes a problem when it lobbies for political favours and taxpayers’ money. Apart from the fact that many of these privatised companies provided a better service, the fact that they were no longer state monopolies made it more difficult for their unions to extract money from the government. The problem of unions was largely a problem of unions in the state sector. When there are no state sector unions, unions will no longer be a problem
SG: She virtually began the war on freedom of choice where smoking is concerned. She started the modern obsession with health and safety as an excuse for controlling our lives. She vastly expended state powers of supervision and control over parenting, and immensely expanded the numbers and powers of social workers.
She made the environmental nonsense politically fashionable. She was the first senior British politician to start wittering about climate change and ozone holes. She doubtless thought she was further stuffing the coal miners. In fact, she was a useful idiot for the ideology best suited to replace socialism as an excuse for Enemy Class domination.
SB: No, the environmental nonsense became politically fashionable long before Thatcher, but she certainly was culpable for demonising fossils fuels.
SG: She hardly cut taxes. She ruthlessly pushed the speed of European integration. Her militaristic foreign policy and slavish obedience to Washington mostly worked against the interests of this country. The one war she fought that might have some justification was only necessary because her own colleagues had effectively told the Argentine Government to invade the Falkland Islands.
SB: But she didn’t raise taxes either! When did her government effectively tell the Argentinians to invade the Falklands?
SG Even her reforms of the trade union movement had malevolent effects. Before her, trade unions were run by ordinary working class people who used the strike and violence to achieve their ends. She ensured that the unions were taken over by the usual Enemy Class graduates. These were the only people capable of using the health and safety and workplace discrimination laws and so forth that were brought in to replace the older methods of advancing working class interests. The result has been the co-option of the trade unions to purposes that have done nothing at all to advance working class interests.
SB: Since when have unions advanced working class interests? A free labour market advances the interests of the workers. Unions have generally damaged the interests of workers.
SG: Forget Margaret Thatcher as some hero of our Movement. She was at best the midwife of the New Labour Revolution. She did not just make the world safe for New Labour – she created New Labour. Without her precedents and her general transformation of our laws and institutions, Tony Blair would have been impossible.
I am inclined to wish James Callaghan had won in 1979. If things had turned nasty thereafter, it would at least have been an honest despotism. No libertarians or genuine conservatives would have been making idiots of themselves a third of a century later trying to tell themselves and everyone else that it was other than it was.
SB: You have to remember that things had already turned nasty before 1979. 20 per cent inflation, IMF knocking on the door, flying pickets at Grunwick and plenty of card-playing time at British Leyland. These were the things that Thatcher was elected to fix and, to a large extent, she did.