Sunday, November 20, 2005

Is Margaret Thatcher a conservative?

Margaret Thatcher visited Melbourne in 1981, just a year or two after becoming British Prime Minister. Whilst here she gave a lecture at Monash University entitled "My Political Philosophy".

She was considered so right-wing at the time that the university authorities initially refused to make a suitable lecture hall available for her visit. It took a phone call from the then Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, to change their minds.

Mrs Thatcher was, of course, a leader of the British Conservative Party. You might think, that being a particularly "right-wing" leader of a "conservative" party, that her politics could be safely assumed to be conservative.

However, when you read the text of her Monash University lecture it quickly becomes apparent that her politics were actually not conservative, but were an orthodox kind of liberalism.

Right to choose

The starting point for Margaret Thatcher's lecture was "the right to choose". She began with the following comments:

What sets man above the rest of the living world is his sanctity as a human being, with the ability and the right to choose; to choose what to believe and what to do do ...

This right to choose, fundamental as it is to human life, is not man-given or government given, but God-given. That is the foundation of personal liberty.

This is such an interesting quote. It brings to mind the earliest explicit statement of liberalism that I have been able to find, that of Pico della Mirandola in the late 1400s. Pico imagined God saying to man that,

You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ...shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

The starting point for both Pico and Mrs Thatcher is the attempt to define the way that God has made us distinct and special; in other words, the way that we have been raised above the birds and the beasts.

The answer they both give is that unlike the beasts we have been made by God to have free will. Our very humanity, what is most sacred about us, is our capacity to choose for ourselves what we are to do and what we are to be.

This too was a starting point for the father of English liberalism, John Locke. In fact, Locke took the argument to a logical conclusion. He wrote (in the 1600s) that if a man asserted an "arbitrary" power over the free will of another man, then by "so revolting from his own kind to that of Beasts ... he renders himself liable to be destroyed ... as any other wild beast or noxious brute."

In other words, our ability to exercise free will makes us human; fail to uphold free will in your conduct with others and you are not human but a beast, and can be hunted down as one.

Individual freedom

Margaret Thatcher's political philosophy is therefore within a liberal tradition which claims that God has given us a special human quality of freedom of choice.

If you believe that our very God-given humanity is defined in this way, then politically you will be committed to upholding liberal individualism: an ideal of personal liberty based on individuals not being constrained or limited in their individual choices.

It's not surprising then to find Mrs Thatcher insisting in her Melbourne speech that,

Where freedom to exercise personal choice exists, I seek to expand it; where it is under attack, I shall defend it; where it does not exist, I shall try to create it.

Mrs Thatcher does, it is true, also insist upon the necessity of order and the rule of law. But this is only to safeguard the freedom of individuals to exercise their individual choice without infringement by others. She writes that:

Order, in a free society, means the ability of ordinary men and women to go about their business and their leisure pursuits in freedom and without fear, so long as what they do does not harm or damage others.

It is to maintain this kind of order that she believes that,

...government must be strong. Strong to uphold the law. Strong to maintain the law. Strong to protect freedom.

Identity & meaning

Even if it's now clear that Margaret Thatcher is philosophically a liberal, it might still be asked why this is a problem. What's wrong with defining our humanity by our right to choose?

Think of the ultimate consequences of this belief. If your very humanity depends on the fact that you have individual choice, you won't like anything that limits your "right" to choose in any direction.

This sets liberals on a collision course with much of what was traditionally thought to add meaning and identity to the lives of individuals.

Take the issue of manhood and womanhood. In pre-liberal societies, our sex was viewed positively as something that made up part of our individual identity. However, it's hard for liberals to accept that our sex helps to define our self-identity. This is because we are simply born into our sex; we don't get to choose it for ourselves.

For liberals, therefore, the traditional view of manhood and womanhood is looked on negatively as something that limits the sphere of individual choice. That's why liberals tend to insist that masculinity and femininity are merely social constructs from which the individual needs to be emancipated.

In a similar way, liberals see a need to "liberate" the individual from other unchosen aspects of human existence, including our ethnic identity, stable and clearly defined forms of family life, and external moral codes.


One biography of Margaret Thatcher has described her achievements in office as follows:

Margaret Thatcher's government followed a radical programme of privatisation and deregulation, reform of the Trade Unions, tax cuts and the introduction of market mechanisms into health and education. The aim was to reduce the role of government and increase individual self-reliance.

This is very clearly a programme of right liberalism. Right liberals focus particularly on "liberating" the individual from economic constraints. They typically prefer a smaller role for the government in the economy, and so wish to privatise and deregulate.

Mrs Thatcher was interested in extending free enterprise as a way of extending the realm of individual choice in general. Given this interest, she was hardly the person to oppose the onward march of liberal individualism in Britain in the 1980s.

And so Britain continued to be transformed by liberalism, despite the wishes of much of the population. For example, Mrs Thatcher did not act to restrict immigration in order to maintain Britain's traditional national identity, nor did she move against "third wave" feminism which seriously disrupted family life in the 1980s.

The one area in which she did make a stand against liberal trends was her unwillingness to completely cede British national sovereignty. Against some criticism, she went to war to recover the Falkland Islands from Argentinian invasion, and she was reluctant to replace the British pound with a European currency.

However, even her defence of national sovereignty seems compromised. In her Melbourne lecture she declared that,

I believe that, despite our growing interdependence, the day of the nation state is not over; that such states still have their contribution to make to the development of the human story.

Perhaps this statement can be read in different ways. To me, it seems to suggest that nations exist to further some larger goal of human progress, and that when this goal is reached they can be discarded.

This is not how a conservative would have chosen to defend the existence of nation states; for conservatives, nations have a value in themselves to be defended on an ongoing basis, rather than being vehicles to some further purpose.

Defining humanity

The original failing in Margaret Thatcher's philosophy is the idea that it is a God-given individual choice which defines our humanity.

Once this idea is accepted, we are likely to believe that a restriction on individual choice is an unacceptable violation of our humanity. This then undermines much of what gives identity and meaning to individuals, such as our ethnic identity, our sex, family life, and so on, as these are inherited or inborn rather than being individually chosen.

But is it true that what makes us distinctively human is our ability to exercise individual choice? Traditionally, it was thought that our humanity was created when God invested us with a soul. This more traditional belief allows us to value human life, even when the capacity to choose is not entirely present, for instance, in older people with dementia, or in the very young.

Furthermore, it seems a very crude understanding of what we are as humans, to rest our definition of humanity on individual choice. A more sophisticated understanding would incorporate much more than this, including important forms of human connectedness, such as our relationship to nation, family, manhood and womanhood.

We need to find better ways to define our humanity than the existing liberal one, which continues to exercise a destructive influence over Western societies.

(First published at Conservative Central 22/02/2004)

No comments:

Post a Comment