Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher passed away yesterday. She was a major figure on the right and so it's worthwhile to look back at her politics.

In 1981, whilst British PM, Thatcher visited Melbourne and gave a speech outlining her political beliefs. It is a striking statement not of conservatism but of right liberalism.

What is right liberalism? Like all forms of liberalism, it is a belief that the highest good is an individual freedom, understood to mean a freedom of the individual to be autonomous: to be unimpeded in choosing, subject to the condition that these choices don't hinder the autonomy of other individuals.

The assumption here is that there aren't goods that a community might value and seek to uphold (apart from liberalism itself). Instead, the focus is on the things we can choose as individuals, usually involving career, consumer choice or, perhaps, lifestyle choice. (So liberalism, for all its talk of choice, involves placing a major limitation on the type of choice that is available to people.)

By taking away the level of existence above that of the individual, liberalism also tends to assume that individuals are interchangeable. If we are seen as rights-bearing, choice-making individuals, then the woman in Peru is interchangeable with the man in Japan. There are no particularities of identity or relationship or essence that fundamentally matter anymore.

But how do you order a society made up of radically autonomous individuals? This is where right-liberalism departs a little from left-liberalism. First, it has been common for right-liberalism to more greatly emphasise the rule of law and personal responsibility as means to order a society. Second, right-liberals have been more sceptical of the role of the bureaucratic state in socially engineering society: they have generally stood for a lower-taxing, smaller state. Third, right-liberals have placed much emphasis on the role of the free market in ordering society. The free market is not only seen as an aspect of personal liberty, but it is thought to create prosperity and progress. For these reasons, right-liberals often see the free market not just as an economic system but as a moral one.

If you read Margaret Thatcher's Melbourne speech it's not difficult to recognise her commitment to a right-liberal philosophy. It's evident, for instance, in her praise of the former Australian PM, Sir Robert Menzies:
When he founded the Liberal Party he said "we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise".

...He saw the Commonwealth as a vehicle for spreading and defending the ideals for which the English speaking peoples stand: democracy, the liberty and responsibility of the individual, the rule of law—in a word, the ideals of freedom.
Then there is her placing of individual choice as the primary good:
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...

...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.
Thatcher then goes on to defend the rule of law as a means of ordering society:
We live in families, neighbourhoods and communities, whose members need rules to enable them to live together harmoniously. These rules or laws must be just, must be backed by authority and administered impartially.

...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. The first task of the State is to defend its citizens against attack from within and without. It is in this sense that the libertarian insists that government must be strong. Strong to uphold the rule of law. Strong to maintain order. Strong to protect freedom...Government must secure the conditions for freedom to prevail. That is its task. People must live their own lives within these laws.
Then there is her commitment to the free market:
The right to choose. The rule of law. We need even more than these to promote and protect liberty. It is not by chance that every free society is fundamentally a capitalist society. For without economic liberty, political liberty will soon die. The converse is not true. Not all capitalist societies are free. Capitalism or free enterprise is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of liberty. I have already described two of the other essential ingredients—the right and responsibility to choose and the rule of law.
There's one final issue to be discussed, namely that of the nation state. This is one area where Thatcher was "conservative" in the sense of wanting to move more slowly than other liberals of her era. She said in her Melbourne speech:
I believe that, despite our growing inter-dependence, 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.
The background to this is as follows. Nations were originally thought of as a large community of people united by a common ethnicity (history, language, race, culture, religion etc.). Liberals rejected this traditional nationalism and put in its place a civic one. The civic nation was supposed to be united by a shared commitment to liberal values and institutions.

But within the space of just a few decades many liberals were giving up even on a civic nation, which they considered still too exclusive and discriminatory (or else too small a unit to pursue power globally). In Australia, for instance, Paul Keating expressed his commitment to post-nationalism, as later on did Kevin Rudd.

Margaret Thatcher was not a nationalist in the traditional sense, but she did still believe in the civic nation state. This led to her political demise; other members of her party wanted to move toward closer European Union integration whilst she did not and so she was deposed as PM.

But she was proven correct in her warnings about monetary union and building a European superstate. In a 1993 memoir she recalled some of the arguments she made against monetary union:
We had arguments which might persuade both the Germans...and the poorer countries, who must be told that they will not be bailed out of the consequences of a single currency, which would therefore devastate their inefficient economies.

Well, we've now seen the German taxpayers having to bail out those countries.

Margaret Thatcher was an intelligent, strong-willed and principled politician, but her principles were right-liberal rather than traditionalist ones.


  1. She also contributed greatly to the demise of what heavy industry remained in the UK in the 1980s. For this reason, many working class people don't like her at all.

  2. Like Reagan, she dealt effectively with the problems she found before her. And like him, she gets some unfair criticism for not dealing effectively with all future problems as well.

    Within the context of 1970's Britain her domestic emphasis on individual rights and free enterprise were appropriate. Does that mean that these things are the correct answer to all problems everywhere for all time? Of course not.

  3. They'll always be reasons to criticize, but she deserves a lot of credit for sticking to her guns.