Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What is Thatcherism?

Decided this would be better than another pic of Mrs T
Like many others I have turned off radio and TV in despair at the 24/7 paean of praise for Margaret Thatcher (interspersed of course with a "balancing" sprinkle of comment from the other side) that is being pumped into our homes.

However, to balance the obsession with the person, we need to look critically at the ideas of the woman.

So - what is Thatcherism?

First, she was a conviction politician, one who operates out of  fundamental belief, rather than by trying to find out what people want and then trying to please them. Once she decided on a course, she would continue on it, come hell or high water. This was her strength, and it gained admiration even from her opponents, but it was also her undoing, because she persisted with the Poll Tax long after it was apparent to everyone that it was completely unacceptable.

Her fundamental belief was Individualism - the doctrine that the individual person is the absolute origin of all political reality. Cambridge defines individualims as "the idea that freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society, rather than shared effort and responsibility" Macmillan gives: "the belief that the freedom of individual people is more important than the needs of society or the government".

The philosophical problem for individualism is that it falls at the first hurdle, the scientific definition of our species. Homo sapiens is a social animal, not a solitary animal. Therefore any political ideology that is founded on the individual being more important than the group is bound to get into difficulties. It is impossible for everyone to behave in a perfectly free manner. Moreover, human beings, whether viewed as individuals or as societies, are not self-existent beings. We are dependent on our physical and biological environment for our existence, which is why both individualism and socialism are inadequate ideologies.

There is another problem with Thatcher's individualism. In practice, the freedom applies only to the successful, the rich and powerful. The unfortunate, the poor, the weak do not benefit from individualism - they get beaten down, and blame and obloquy is piled on them. Thatcher's individualism is for the 1%.

Flowing from individualism come the usual list of Tory political ideals:

  • Free Market Fundamentalism - the notion that men (yes, mainly men) acting out of self-interest, competing against other such self-interested men for money, which is universally seen by philosophers as a low value item, will produce the best of all possible worlds. Not such a brilliant idea really. 
  • Deregulation follows from Free Market Fundamentalism. Thatcher's deregulation of the City, uncorrected by NuLabour,  lit the fuse that exploded the world financial markets in 2009.
  • Free Trade - no tariffs, subsidies, or quotas. This is clearly pie in the sky stuff. Apart from anything else, the ecological imperative demands that the carbon market is controlled for a start. To her credit, Thatcher, as a chemist did see the problem with CFCs, and helped to bring about their ban, but in doing so she contradicted her own ideals.
  • The notion of the Small State (which leads to misery as people are thrown out of public employment and services are cut, and will probably lead to corruption).
  • Monetarism - the notion that Government must control the money supply in order to avoid inflation. Basically, this idea crashed in the 1990s when the money supply doubled every 10 years, without appreciable inflation. 

There was a bunch of other stuff lying about in the bottom of her handbag - nationalism, Victorian values, populism obtained propaganda from a skewed press - but this quick review of her ideology shows that it lacks bottom. Thatcher's individualism is pretty insubstantial.

Insubstantial, but prevalent. It is no mere coincidence  that "Tony Blair, a PM" is an anagram for "I am Tory Plan B". Miliband's Labour is still cowering under the shadow of her ideology.

But false ideologies cannot prevail forever. Thatcherism, like its author, will one day succumb to mortality. Our job is not to express personal hatred against her, but to make sure that we are ready with a coherent, worked out, ecological/green replacement to her failed philosophy.


Gavin said...

On the subject of the Small State:

How small is too small?

Is there an ideal "amount" of State?

Is there an upper limit to how big the State should be?

Could it be said that *some* public sector jobs were created for the purpose of buying votes at the next election?

Ultimately State is paid for by taxing private enterprise. Surely the more things you bring into the public sector, the less potential there is for tax revenue...if not, why not?

Richard Lawson said...

Hi Gavin (or should that be Sir Rod?)

All good questions.
Is there an ideal? It depends on the prevailing situation. Keynes suggests the State spending should shrink during good times and expand during bad times. That seems reasonable. The State gets massive during wartime. I remember Jerry Wiggin, my old Thatcherite Tory MP, rushing aboard a merchant vessel in the Falklands War and nationalising it practically at gunpoint.

The state needs to be continually reviewed, to make sure it is operating efficiently. I reckon workers at the sharp end are key for this. Bring back the old Suggestion Box, I say.

Another point is that state spending is like an addiction. Assuming for the sake of argument that it is too big, it needs to be reduced slowly and carefully. Too rapid reduction of an addictive substance can lead to illness.

We are living in interesting times.