Debating the Thatcher legacy

A debate has started on the History Enthusiasts Group on the Linked In site about the political legacy of Mrs Thatcher who died recently. It was started by Emilio Valli by reference to an opinion piece in Spiegel online (Emilio Valli •The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher Dies at 87 @SPIEGELONLINE ) and then he asked this question:-

What is your view of the influence of Margaret Thatcher ‘s legacy on the current political debate in advanced liberal democracies and beyond?

I responded and the debate continues. I thought it would be a good idea to share with a wider audience so I am adding the debate as a stream on my blog – here are the points so far…

Keith Melton •For a start I find it difficult to accept as meaningful a sentence which has both Thatcher’s name and the words “liberal democracies” in it. If it had been “libertarian” or even “libertine” it would have perhaps been a better starting point for such a discussion. Libertine is defined online as “one who acts without moral constraint” and that was what it felt like, living through the Thatcher years.

Her credo led, amongst other things, to the deregulation of markets which in turn contributed very significantly to the economic meltdown over recent years stemming from profit led investment in the so-called sub-prime housing market, the effects of which are still being felt in most of those “liberal democracies”.today.

Her credo made selfishness an acceptable social stance and one of her more memorable statements was along the lines of “…there is no such thing as Society” (1987)
…is that enough to start the debate?

Emilio Valli •Keith, thank you for starting the debate. I accept your criticism of the way the question was formulated and take it as a statement of the (negative) impact of Thatcherism on our democracies. Am I correct in my interpretation of your thought?
In a way, your comment is one more measure of how fundamentally, for better or for worse, Thatcher’s ideas and their implementation have transformed the culture and the institutions of economic and political governance at a global level.

History moves in cycles. The solutions of today are often the problems of tomorrow. In my opinion, Margaret Thatcher played a bold role during her tenure as Prime Minister in wrenching Britain-and by her example much of the world-out of the failed path of economic planning and stifling state control.

Thatcher’s political philosophy and personality have shaped an era of entrepreneurship and economic growth, which has lifted hundred of millions out of poverty in Asia, Latin America and Asia, and created new wealth and social benefits in the advanced economies.
That there have been also enduring costs that need to be corrected, does not detract in the long run from her historical stature, whether for the better or for the worse.

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Keith Melton

Keith Melton •Emilio, you are perfectly correct in taking my brief remarks as a statement of the negative impact of Thatcher’s tenure but you may have underestimated the depth of my aversion to the period of her governance. Part, at least, of my criticism is that the UK effectively ceased to be a ‘liberal democracy’ during that time and decision making became very centralised. It was a process which, sadly, continued during the Blair years. It was as if subsequent leaders thought “Well, if she managed to get away with it then so can we”

I hold no brief for “stifling state control”, nor particularly for centralised economic planning, although many problems now do require a more planned approach than they are receiving (for example Global Warming needs a much more co-ordinated approach both internationally and nationally than it is getting) But, my point was that the level of deregulation opened up the more developed economies to crude manipulation and greed on a grand scale.

You also make it sound as though the “enduring costs” are modest and tractable and may be relatively easily “corrected”. Amongst those costs you must count the long-running success of the Climate Change deniers, the majority of whom come from the same stable as the “freedom at any cost” politicians who have taken their cue from Thatcher, Reagan and both Bushes.

We are nowhere near a full understanding of the environmental consequences of unfettered economic growth – problems which were recognised as long ago as the late 1960s and early 1970s. I know they were because I was there and it was very frustrating that even the existence of such problems was ‘pooh-poohed’ at the time and flat-out denied during Thatcher’s governance. If proper notice had been taken then of the warning signs, we could have been MUCH further down the road of such understanding now.

Emilio Valli •Kevin, (sic) I am of the opinion that the narrative of Margaret Thatcher as a denier of Climate Change is somehow unjust. Read, if you haven’t, her 1989 speech to the United Nations for example. Or the 1988 one to the Royal Society. Or to the 2nd World Climate Conference of 1990. You might be surprised. In those speeches she shows leadership on the issue of climate change. Quite in contradiction with some patterns of right wing politics we are more familiar with today.

Robert Davis •I hope that this comment is not too far off point but in hearing the often negative remarks on Thatcher’s domestic and foreign policies over the last few days, I am reminded of a comment that a reporter made back in the 1990s, that “if Margraret Thatcher were still in power, the Balkins war would have been over in an afternoon.” How many thousands of lives might have been saved?

The point being that with a strong leader like her, we can sometimes wince at her policies and question decisions with the easy comfort that we do not have to take responsibility for what does or does not happen. We should also think about what the consequences of not having her where she was and when she was to make the hard decisions and tell the truths that we do not want to hear, to do the job no one wanted.

Keith Melton

Keith Melton •Firstly I did not call Mrs Thatcher a denier herself (I will come back to this in a moment) but those who do deny climate change take as their credo ‘freedom at any cost’ which is typified by Thatcher’s practice in governance. And here we must come to the difference between rhetoric and practice.

I will give Mrs T her due in making those speeches and the speech in 1988 actually made a personal difference for me. I was working at Nottingham Business School and had started a ‘voluntary’ business group called the Green Business Network, so when she made her speech there were journalists who wanted some background about environmental issues (because Mrs T had spoken and they didn’t have a clue what she was talking about frankly!)…and questions coming into the university were directed to me….!! so my own profile took a small temporary boost, something that always made me smile with irony. Perhaps it even helped in the longer term when I was able to start the Institute for Sustainable Development in Business ten years later.

I was encouraged, too, when her appointee on Environment issues, John Gummer, came to the East Midlands and made a couple of sympathetic speeches and listened as well…BUT, I come back to the point that when it came down to action (or lack of it) the Thatcher government was very poor on the environment and Gummer was sidelined and little was done – so maybe the analysis was moving in the right direction but the practice was continuing to move in totally the wrong direction – Freedom at any cost

Briefly, if I may on Robert’s point, I do not have a problem with strong leadership in politics, except when it is seriously flawed. Thatcher wanted to be Churchillian and when the Falklands crisis came up she quickly took the country into a war that could have been avoided. Sadly, she glorified in the victory as did most of the tabloids at the time.

It can also be argued that the political ‘bounce’ she got in popularity led Blair into seeking to become a warrior Prime Minister as well and fighting a later war in Iraq that was probably illegal and definitely unwarranted in terms of the mythical WMD which was used spuriously to justify the war after he and Bush had made their decision on regime change.

If that is part of the Thatcher legacy I can honestly say none of it was done in my name and I spoke out against both the Falklands war and the Iraq war at the time.



About Keith Melton - Green Lib Dem

Retired English liberal environmentalist living in Nottinghamshire; spent six years in Brazil. Author of Historical Novel - Captain Cobbler: the Lincolnshire Uprising 1536. Active member of the Green Liberal Democrats - (pressure group in Liberal Democrats) - was Founding Chair of GLD in 1988
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