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8 April, 2013  ▪  John Lucas

Turn Again, Great Britain

Margaret Thatcher made Britons feel confident of themselves, and once again proud of their country, and have put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain

Margaret Thatcher was lucky.  She had the right enemies. Soon after she came to power a tinpot South American dictator, General Galtieri, invaded the Falkland Islands. She took him on, and won, freeing the Falkland Islanders from foreign domination and, as a consequence, the Argentinians from a tyrannical junta; this bolstered her own power, so that when her next opponent, Arthur Scargill, called a miners' strike, she was able to mobilise public support for holding out until it collapsed.  

But it was not all luck. Besides some shrewd tactical planning on her part, there was a tide of disenchantment with the post-war settlement of 1945. The Welfare State was being eroded by the public sector unions, which were running it for their own benefit, not that of the general public.  Industrial indiscipline had damaged Britain's reputation for workmanship, and was steadily destroying its markets abroad. Full employment policies fuelled inflation. Gradually, and often unwillingly, the public was coming to realise that the old policies did not, and could not, work, and were only generating “stagflation”, which was bringing the country to its knees.  

What Mrs Thatcher did was to understand what was wrong, argue that it was wrong, convince people that it was wrong, and tell them what should be done instead. By 1979 she had already won the intellectual battle, and could defend painful and unpopular policies with the watchword TINA (There Is No Alternative). She appealed to the widespread feeling in favour of freedom and the work ethic of the working class. The leaders of the Trade Unions had become oligarchs, who were ready to twist arms in order to enhance their own bargaining power. But if the law gives freedom to join a Trade Union, should it not give freedom not to join? That question, raised insistently again and again, gave Mrs Thatcher the justification for curbing the power of the Unions to call strikes or enforce the closed shop. People had a right to work, and not to be tyrannized by shop stewards. And a duty. Mr Norman Tebbit's “Get on your bike” was much criticized, but struck a chord with many workers, who resented the fact they worked hard, while others idled away their time in wasteful practices. One did not have to be very clever to work out that an economy in which nobody did a good day's work would not support a decent standard of living. Although it was generally agreed that those who were ill or old or frail should be helped at the public expense, it was also held that those who could work should, and that a young man who could not find work in his own town should get on his bike and seek it elsewhere. The very fact that soft-centred intellectual Lefties criticized Mr Tebbit's precept made it seem to the majority of the working class obvious common sense. 

Freedom and responsibility combine in integrity. If we are free to do what we think best, and are answerable for our actions, we can be, and need to be, honest to ourselves and to others. Large State institutions tend to be corrupt. Officials hold great power, and are usually unaccountable for the way they exercise it. It is temptingly easy for them to betray their trust, and take bribes to favour one suppliant rather than another. Privatisation prevents this.  It is logically impossible to bribe a plumber, working on his own, to come and mend a broken pipe. Money changes hands, but it is an above-board payment for services rendered. Dishonest sidekicks give way to honest profits. British Telecom used to be a Soviet-style monopoly, dictating what colours of telephone were allowed, and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to consumers: But now there is choice, different providers offer all sorts of different telephones in different colours, and if a provider gives me unsatisfactory service, I can transfer to another which suits me better. Choice creates competition, and competition encourages efficiency. Even in a big company there will be people, at least at the top, who have an interest in eliminating incompetence. There was much criticism of Mrs Thatcher's privatisation programme by moralists who thought it was preferable to have businesses run by disinterested loss-makers than by self-interested profit-makers, but she flushed out a lot of inefficiency and surly service.The British economy turned round. Although there still linger patches of dozy inadequacy in the public sector, and some sharp practice by big business, the public enjoy a wide range of choice and a reasonably high standard of provision when they go out shopping.  

Freedom runs counter to equality. If I am free to choose, I discriminate. If I go to the restaurant that cooks the tastier food, I increase the profits of that restaurateur as compared with those I could, but did not, patronise. He gets rich. That engendered intense envy in the egalitarian breast. Mrs Thatcher outfaced the politics of envy. She cut income tax, which had been levied in some cases at a rate of 98%. (Even that was not enough for some politicians: one suggested that it ought to be more than 100% on “excessively large” incomes!). It was a hard-fought battle, not completely won---the politics of envy is still going strong in contemporary Britain: but when the Labour party came to power in 1997, there was no question of going back to punitive taxation: New Labour professed itself quite happy with private wealth. Mrs Thatcher had altered the whole scenario of personal taxation. The rôle of the State had been rolled back, and clout restored to private individuals.  

Liberty seems also to run counter to Fraternity. Mrs Thatcher was hard on the Tory wets, who were imbued with the “One Nation” ideals of Disraeli, and sowed a lasting seed of discontent in Scotland and Wales. But the Falklands proved her to be at one with the patriotic working class. She was standing up for us. There was no mistaking her commitment to our brave boys facing the enemy. Moreover it was evidently a just war. Unlike later campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reclamation of the Falklands could not be seen as imperialist aggression or unwarranted meddling in another country's affairs. Since the Boer war at the beginning of the twentieth century there had been a number of “Little Englanders” who looked askance at Britain's imperial pretensions, and feared the xenophobic propensities of patriotism. There were some still, particularly in the Foreign Office, who wanted to hand the Falkland islands over to Argentina in the hope that it would improve our reputation there. But the geography of the Falkland Islands was trumped by the wishes of the Falkland Islanders even in the tender consciences of the left.  Standing up for them, Mrs Thatcher was a champion of self-determination, and no accusation of xenophobic nationalism could gain credence.  

Mrs Thatcher had many assets. Large parts of the constitution worked well. The Monarchy and the House of Lords did all that could be asked of them, and more. The law, though dilatory and expensive, was incorruptible. The Press was free, though subject to an unreasonably restrictive law of libel. Civil Servants, though expected to speak their minds and often critical of government policies, accepted that their duty was to carry out to the best of their ability what the government finally decided. Two Foreign Office officials, by dint of wide contacts and extremely hard work, succeeded, one in Europe the other in the United States, in rallying support for Britain's recapturing the Falklands by force of arms. In planning for the Miners’ strike, working out when to let it happen and on what issue, some Civil Servants felt queasy at the Workers being subjugated by the State, but in the end accepted that it was for the government to take the decision, and answer for it to Parliament and the Electorate.  

Mrs Thatcher made mistakes. Most obviously in foreign policy, where she opposed German re-unification, and failed to take a lead as the liberation of Eastern Europe unfolded. She failed to undo the damage done to education by Labour's comprehensive schools, and indeed had gone along with their destruction of grammar schools. Deregulating the banks and financial institutions was an important step towards freedom and efficiency, but as we have now learnt, it went too far. The free market, like State control, has its own weaknesses, and we still have to work out what sort of constraints are needed and how they should be administered.  

In spite of mistakes, Mrs Thatcher served her country well. She had courage and integrity, and always provided substance rather than spin. She did not surround herself with cronies, and was a collegial prime minister, not an autocratic president---when a submarine radioed that it had the Belgrano in its sights, the whole cabinet debated for twenty-five minutes before coming to a unanimous decision that it should be sunk; and she allowed a Leader of the House of Commons, whom she herself found uncongenial, to institute reforms that have considerably reduced the ineffectiveness of that body. But her measures worked because they were based on fundamental principles of freedom and individual responsibility, set in a framework of laws adjudicated, independently of politics, by impartial judges. She made Britons feel confident of themselves, and once again proud of their country, and can be said to have put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.  

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