The Reverse Side of the Iron Lady

A great reformer, a friend of Poland and freedom, the symbol of female emancipation – the truth about Margaret Thatcher’s governance is much more complicated than these simple and overused clichés.


This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Political celebration of Women’s Day is over. On that day, many forgotten debates revive. Some of them are trivial, but some of them are serious, all of them are the “hostages” of exaggerated “sex against sex” logic. But this year it is impossible not to go 20-30 years back in time, when the famous “Iron Lady” wielded power in 10 Downing Street, when some weeks ago Meryl Streep was awarded an Oscar for her role of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. When the film was coming out at Polish cinemas, I was following  press publications about Thatcher and her times with huge interest. Although years pass by, Poland still writes about Thatcher in the same way as it wrote 5, 10 or maybe even 15 years ago. Firstly, because of the convergence of her governance, which was an obvious turn in economic policy, with Polish political transformation and our close encounter with pros and cons of neoliberalism. These narratives are a propaganda of success, though it is a bit exaggerated. It is a song of praise about the saving role of her age for the United Kingdom, which is superficial and blind to defeats of Thatcher’s policy. The second way of writing about Thatcher, which is preferred by non-conservative authors, who basically do not support her achievements, is based on the logic of the war of sexes mentioned above, so it presents Margaret Thatcher as a warrior in the hostile world of males, who used to fight her unanimously and independently of their own views. It makes this traditionalist and conservative a bit of a heroine of a radical, progressive and even feminist world. So, what if it was all involuntarily?

Because we have read a lot about such stuff, I decided to write something about Thatcher and her times in a slightly different way. For sure, not so many people will read it but maybe it will be original. When the editor-in-chief wants you to write something about a politician, who had a great impact on the world, but whose career came to an end a long time ago, your first reaction is to create a text which evaluates the work of his or her political life in hindsight. It is important, but I have always had an impression that it is also a bit ahistorical. But it is sometimes worth getting rid of our advantage, which we get thanks to the knowledge about something which belonged to the past from the perspective of people from these times, and evaluating the direct influence of the policy and its actions on people and paying attention to their anxieties, even if later on they turned out to be partially groundless.

She was iron because she was stiff

Margaret Thatcher succeeded rather in changing her own party than her own country. Before she won her first elections and became the head of the government, her new line in economic policy had gained recognition of the majority from Conservative Party (a wing of the so called “wet” Tories, which was close to the centre, was marginalised). It is a work which could not be overestimated because never before had economic liberalism characterised the world view of a typical Tory, who rather seemed to be a supporter of accurate protectionism, “harnessing” the economy to serve empire’s interests and giving out licences. The inflation crisis, which took place in late 70s, induced politicians to search for new ways out. Interestingly, British Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, began a policy of consolidation of public expenditures in 1978 and it was the cause of government failure in elections in 1979. The British chose Thatcher because of protests against something which soon turned out to be the essence of her policy. This is another paradox of the history.

Thatcher, having firm and strongly grounded views, would be a good political philosopher or a party ideologist and the author of programme documents. In practical public activity this rigidity turned into dogmatism and intellectual inflexibility. A neoliberal could be glad about such an attitude towards economic policy, but soon it turned out that it concerns a lot of political problems. The way in which Mrs Prime Minister changed her party included not only adopting a clear line in economic or tax policy but also susceptibility to dogmatism and radicalism, which became a direct reason for pushing conservatives for many years into the opposition in the deep defensive after 1997.

Thatcher also changed her country, but not in the way conforming with her hopes and expectations. A free-market treatment undoubtedly went in the right direction. It suited the needs of the country in stagnation, in which the government helped the increasing number of citizens, but as a result it only cultivated and strengthened their lack of hope for a better future, it deprived them of dynamism and the will to be active. There appears a question mark not when we ask about the fundamental direction of the reforms taken up in the ‘70s, but when we go to the level of details, express doubts about the pace of changes and tools used. These question marks have to appear if doubling of unemployment rate in the first year of Mrs Prime Minister rule was the price of a partial reduction of inflation and this success anyway turned out to be ephemeral, when the inflation started coming back by meanders of exchange-rate policy. They have to arise if deregulation policy was not consequent and budget cuts were accompanied by new burdens connected (to make things worse) with centralisation and administrative control of many fields, which earlier on were left for local decisions. The vision of the United Kingdom in Thatcher’s head was undoubtedly completely different from the “product” of her governance. It was to be strongly individualised, dynamic, enterprising and free of excessive regulations, but at the same time it was to be under strict political control of public institutions, which was usually exercised by means of half-private agencies entrusted to reliable officials or to a business which was connected with

a party and also to a social control in the spirit of traditional elitism of British class society, where “noblesse oblige”. Instead of that, the society was becoming more and more individualised in terms of customs and morality and that means it was becoming progressive and rejected the rules of living in an old-fashioned framework of social hierarchy. The centralisation was turning into bureaucracy of lower and lower quality, which had poor control over many things but wasted increasing amount of funds and the society was losing the ability of self-control not only because of disappearing elitism but mainly because of the break-up of environmental bonds of local communities, which were split by an excessive pace of economic reforms, which led to the need to reach for more intensive (and more expensive) means within the scope of police methods of control and ensuring the safety.

She was iron because she was persistent

We could see it during the first term of Margaret Thatcher’s governance, when British liberal communities crushingly criticised her policy. There was a common awareness that the Labour Party, which was becoming entangled in the rhetoric of ”Marxist restoration” and was building national socialism, did not offer any rational alternative. Both main parties of the system got stuck in mental ruts of basing the whole governmental policy on economic analysis of class interests of their own clientele. On the one hand, Thatcher and her Tories were focused on: social benefit cuts (from which their electorate did not benefit) and the demonstration of government repression power (to cease social signs of dissatisfaction and protect their electorate from mob’s attack), but they completely ignored the challenge of creating frameworks, which would facilitate bigger social mobility, open the ways of promotion and connect a lot of citizens (also poorer ones) with social-economic model of free-market capitalism. On the other hand, there was the more and more red Labour Party, which radicalized its programme after its failure in 1979 and took care only of: populist demands to bring back and increase redistribution (in its electorate favour) by means of increasing burdens and nationalisation (which did not burden its electorate) and without any care about the general condition of national economy. In these circumstances of increasing unemployment, regression of industrialisation, fostering of speculators, centralisation to the detriment of local governments, degradation of social relations in local environments and airy-fairy demands of left-wing opposition, it came to arousal of British liberal movement form deep sleep, in which it had been stuck since the Liberal Party fell apart in 1931. The alliance formed by liberals and the right wing of the Labour Party (Alliance) in 1982 became the most popular political power in the country. Only the national build-up after the Falklands War saved Mrs Prime Minister’s majority in election in 1983.

The Iron Lady was met by a fusillade of criticism

Liberal and the only rational criticism, which was directed to Thatcher at that time focused around four basic elements. The first one was obviously connected with Mrs Prime Minister’s foreign policy. It was indicated that the Falkland Islands war expedition was absurd and it was a proof of Thatcher’s hypocrisy, which revealed insincerity of her assurances about regarding budget consolidation as priority. In such a case, and also looking at the attitude of radical distrust towards partners in Europe and the policy towards EEC, one could notice a typical, traditional element of Tories’ vision of the world – sometimes fanatical nationalism and inner inability to accept the loss of the Empire.

The second element of the criticism concerned obviously the economic policy, which was said to be dogmatic, too ideological, without the needed balance, for instance between the realisation of objectives to fight inflation and unemployment. It was highlighted that economic liberal ideas were taken out of context. These ideas, “designed” by classical liberals, were to serve.

A free human being was imagined as creative, ambitious, enterprising, naturally good and open-handed. Meanwhile, used by conservatives, who describe a human being as cynical, egoistic, stupid or naturally bad, it was turned into a caricature. Hence, there was a crass disturbance of “social ecology,” which was valued by British liberals, that is, a demand not to put the living social tissue to unexpected experiments, either in the form of utopias of the “ideal order” created by the left wing or in the form of outmoded Social Darwinism. In the clash with insolence of trade unions, which act from a position of power, Thatcher enjoyed the support of the majority of the centre. But she could not count on it when she did the same thing from an even greater position of power, when she ignored the rules of dialogue, disregarded suggestion of compromise, authoritatively imposed her decisions, weakened democracy by alienating big social groups from the existing political system and decreasing the faith in the meaningfulness of democracy by indifference of the government, which she showed when she destroyed the structure of local communities, which was created by spontaneous social-economic relations and left devastated environments, where social pathology, vandalism and frustrations arising from the lack of perspectives became omnipresent. She evoked anger, when after some years the reforms which had entailed these costs turned out to be ineffective, inflation was increasing again, concerns fell, the percentage of real estates in the hands of private owners was decreasing rapidly together with the new increase of unemployment rate in the region. In the end, she evoked only a cynical smile of her critics, when her economic policy based on the slogans of liberal deregulation and withdrawal of the state towards a bigger freedom of every single citizen was accompanied by the development of the state in all other fields. The state of Tories could not stop controlling citizens. Not in the times of Thatcher’s governance.

The third element of the criticism of Mrs Prime Minister was her social policy, which was

a kind of defection of Victorian traditions, which were very often recalled. Especially defection of traditions which were close to classical Toryism. Thatcher entered a trap set by Marxists. She abandoned Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation” doctrine. Disraeli restored the position of the decaying party by this doctrine, to which the further leaders of the Tories from Bonar Law and Baldwin, through Churchill to Heath had always held on. It was a doctrine about overcoming or ignoring class divisions, creating policy for all British people above these divisions, activating the spirit of nationalism when classes’ economic interests polarised too much. In the Falkland Islands, Thatcher did something similar, but in her times there was no “One Nation” anymore. The Tories form the ‘80s were a party dedicated to the moneyed class. It was a party in the trap of elitism, in which it fell combining the elements of economic liberalism with the ideas of conservative social hierarchy and the control over the masses for their own good. The fourth element of the criticism is the already outlined problem of the policy of forming the political system, centralisation, focusing great power in government’s hands, too rapid usage of the apparatus of repression, omnipresent bureaucracy and the increase of vulnerability to corruption.

Thatcher’s lurch

A dark vision emerges from these comments, doesn’t it? This is obviously the well-known other side of the coin. The reverse of these exaggerated eulogies about the effectiveness of Thatcher’s governance written with hindsight, when you can sum up the entirety and omit some problems in the final “balance sheet”. When you concentrate on her contemporaries and their criticism of her governance you can exaggerate the other way round. It is a compilation of the inevitably exaggerated rhetoric, which is used by the opposition in respect of the government, which it wants to remove from power. But it is also true that – just like in the case of Wałęsa, Balcerowicz and Buzek in Poland – the British liked Thatcher the most when the memory of her governance was no longer fresh and the probability of her holding the position again reached zero level.

I do not want to make the impression that the author of this essay subscribes to the criticism of Thatcher aired by the Liberal Party of that time and centrist public opinion. Sometimes they hit the nail on the head but sometimes they were way off the mark. The main problem of the governance of the “Iron Lady” was the fact that she disregarded Ralf Dahrendorf’s suggestion. This British-German liberal wrote that there are three fundamental social-political goals, which are desired in every situation, in the system of contemporary, West liberal democracy: political freedom, economic effectiveness and social cohesion. Ideological differences are connected with different ways of putting stress between them. Thatcher started to reform her country in 1979 as if this country was… Poland after 45 years of real socialism, where we had to build a new economic order, and existing social relations (apart from some exceptions) were valueless because they were created from the mentality contaminated by homo sovieticus. But the British crisis was not so deep and the complete ignoring of the social coherence aspect and considerable infringement of political freedom in favour of economic effectiveness was not justified. This experiment weakened the society. Fast moral liberalisation of the British society, which in 1968 was not changed so radically as societies in France, the Netherlands or West Germany and faster – and I guess the greatest – changes towards permissiveness in Europe contributed to the fact that the British society in ‘80s and ‘90s felt the aftermath of this policy of imbalance. To introduce solely economic liberalisation of the United Kingdom, Thatcher introduced the liberalisation in every field. She may have understood too late that a society cannot be highly individualised in one aspect of life and very traditional in the other. Today, this is the most optimistic summing-up of the discussion about the results of Thatcher’s policy for a liberal rather than for the “Iron Lady” herself.

Translation: Anita Stradomska.