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Rethinking the Iron Lady: lessons for today Brexit

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Since the British population decided to strike a coup in the liberal political establishment voting for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (Brexit), Westminster is in a political crisis. David Cameron resigned after the referendum’s outcome, and Theresa May’s government is burning in flames, and no one knows if she will survive a vote of confidence initiated by conservative backbenchers.

To understand the political drama of the modern United Kingdom and Brexit, one must understand the significance of Margaret Thatcher, her relationship with Europe and with the British people.

Thatcher was an enthusiast of European economic integration because she believed that this would be the only way to impose fiscal rigor on the UK in the long run. It was long afterward, and too late, that she came to understand that the pan-European project was, in fact, a plan of the Eurocrats to destroy the nation-states in favor of one United States of Europe controlled by an authoritarian bureaucracy in Brussels. Thatcher’s famous Bruges Speech (1988), in which she described the European unification project as an attempt to “introduce collectivism and corporatism” and “concentrate power at the center of a European conglomerate,” was given when her political power was already in decline.

Thatcher’s relationship with Europe is only one of the many contradictions and nuances that marked her government and the modern UK that she helped build.

The Iron Lady was controversial, aroused passion and hatred, destroyed the Keynesian consensus that dominated the politics of her time, and redefined the English ideological lines. According to historian Tony Judt, she was able at the same time to “oppress, intimidate and seduce” the people as no other British leader was able to do before or after her, which gave her three consecutive and unprecedented electoral triumphs. Another historian, Paul Johnson, described her as a stubborn woman, a kind of prophet, a champion of economic liberalism, someone who could go on even when everyone else has given up. The flamboyant Tory politician and writer Norman St John-Stevas called her “our Joan D’arc.” However, Melanie Phillips, a critic of Thatcher’s social legacy, maybe gave the definitive definition about Iron Lady: “she was a political titan.”

The idea that Thatcher was a political titan gains even more credibility when we contrasted her with the current English political class or, why not, with the frigid European political establishment. Seeing Thatcher parading among the international politics stars of the 1980s was like seeing an elephant dancing tango in an antique shop. In groups composed exclusively of men, she stood out not only for being a woman but also for her ability to monopolize agenda, attention, and criticism. In the sleepy halls where prototypes of statesmen sought to decide the future of humanity, Thatcher’s voice was out of step for her belief that everything was wrong, that everything could be fixed and that the free-market was the only way to be followed.

Since the end of its empire and the disaster of Suez, the postwar United Kingdom assumed that decadence was fate and, passively, accepted that glory should only be sought in books of history. Nonetheless, for Thatcher this interpretation was misleading, a diatribe scattered by malicious socialists.

The Iron Lady believed in few things and certainly believed in the resoluteness of the people who had defeated Hitler, and especially in the bourgeois value according to which every man is master of its own destiny. Encouraged by the spirit that everything is possible if we strive to do so, Thatcher looked into the eyes of European leaders, trade unionists and the British political class and said in an interview: ” Do you know any leader, a prophet or a religious reformer who said ‘rejoice, brothers, because I bring you consensus’? No, there is no such a thing!” It was challenging the consensus, breaking the rules, that the daughter of a small shopkeeper entered into history.

Thatcher’s achievements are widely known. She overcame stagflation, privatized state-owned companies and reformed labor legislation, ending the despotism of unions that had overthrown the two prime ministers who preceded her. She also condemned the Labor Party to 18 long years of opposition and made the socialization of the means of production an impossible economic alternative. After Thatcher, few English politicians seriously talked about socialism. Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition, is the first in a long time.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is only in her victories that we must focus. Instead, it is in her failures that we should seek out fundamental lessons about how conservatives should govern.

To begging with, the Iron Lady was not a conservative. She considered herself a Whig, a classic British liberal following the tradition pioneered by Gladstone in the nineteenth century. Thatcher felt much more comfortable with the values of the bourgeoisie than in the Tory culture associated with the countryside nobility and with the Church of England. She lacked that natural reverence that conservatives often demonstrate toward both the bucolic life of the past and the small political associations that Edmund Burke called “the little platoons.” Thus, Thatcher was easily misguided by doubtful economic arguments about the efficiency and desirability of institutions and social arrangements that were not designed to maximize profit.

This certain contempt she displayed concerning all that the old Tory England represented was often a trigger for misunderstandings between her supporters, within the conservative intellectual coalition, and ultimately brought her far more trouble than solutions.

John Gray’s essay The Strange Death of the Tory England (1995) shows how the war that Thatcher declared against the local authorities provoked the practical destruction of the communal governments that for centuries formed the basis of conservative power in opposition to the progressive centralism of London. Believing that the small villages did not know how to spend, she increased the power of the central government in such a way that after 18 years of conservative government little had been left of institutions that had survived for centuries. Not surprisingly, the concentration of power in the growing central bureaucracy brought an increase in the inefficiency of public spending.

This absence of the principle of subsidiarity in Thatcher’s philosophy was widely explored in the book Thatcher and Sons (2010) by Simon Jenkins. According to him, the style of quasi-presidential rule, contrary to the collegial style of a traditional parliamentary system, and the tendency to micromanagement were emulated by all those who occupied the 10th Downing Street after her. All governments that succeeded the Iron Lady greatly favored the concentration of power she initiated and resulted in the creation of a bureaucratic monster that puts freedom and taxpayers’ money at stake.

It is common to believe that the division within the Conservative Party between wets (anti-Thatcherites) and dries (Thatcherites) was mainly on the role of free-market in society. Well, that’s true, but it’s a half-truth. Thatcherites were more amenable to economic liberalism, but the dry ones were architects of some of the most popular, successful and lasting reforms implemented by the Iron Lady’s government. For example, it was the dry Michel Heseltine the architect of the dismantling of the socialist system of council houses that ended up creating the “democracy of owners” praised by Thatcher. It was another dry Tory, Peter Walker, who prepared the successful strategy to face the energy crisis caused by the miners’ strike, which allowed Thatcher to defeat the Stalinist union leader Arthur Scargill. Therefore, it seems that the role of local governments and Thatcher’s presidential style was far more fundamental to the quarrels within the Cabinet and the Conservative Party than capitalism itself.

It is interesting to note how many contradictions Thatcher had. Whereas she was a profound individualist, she was also extraordinarily nationalistic and, as pointed out by the historian E. H. H. Green, she considered herself an English woman above all else. That evidently was a problem because she was the leader of a federation of nations united by the universal sovereignty of the Queen. When her English nationalism was added to her disdain towards the traditionally conservative local authorities, the outcome was an increasing outcry for independence and the Tory party to be whipped out from the non-English regions of the United Kingdom.

Thatcher also seemed to have cared little about social issues central to conservatives. As a Member of Parliament she voted for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and as Secretary of State for Education under Edward Heath, she dismantled the wonderful system of public schools known as grammar schools, which greatly valued meritocracy, in favor of the egalitarian system of comprehensive schools. This policy earned her much praise from labor politicians, such as her predecessor in the Department of Education, Shirley Williams.

She had also done nothing to reverse the dismantling of the traditional family and to combat multiculturalism even after Roger Scruton’s The Salisbury Review rang the bell in 1984. The uncontrolled migration that in two decades remodeled the English social landscape was due to reforms implemented by the Thatcher government as well.

Many of these erratic decisions put Thatcher on a collision course with more conservative elements of the British right. The Iron Lady was harshly criticized by Scruton who could not believe her unwillingness to understand the importance of preserving the British social fabric. Other Tories, not without reason, thought that the centralism and radicalism of some of Thatcher’s proposals and her disregard for some of the historical proposals of the Conservative Party would result in the annihilation of the old United Kingdom.

Peter Hitchens, the chronicler of social decadence in modern England, is another member of the English right who has no sweet words to describe what he regards as social atomization brought about by the 1960s social revolution and accelerated mainly by the excessive individualism espoused by the Thatcher philosophy of government. Hitchens’ trilogy (The Abolition of Britain, The Abolition of Liberty and The Cameron Delusion) tells how the Conservative Party under Thatcher and her successors abandoned the struggle in defense of traditional institutions in favor of socio-cultural relativism which, with the advent of the Labor Party’s Blairites, eventually created a single-party regime in which no matter how people vote, the pro-European Union multiculturalist elite is always winning. Politically correct authoritarianism began to gain strength in the 1980s, transmuting the state into a bureaucratic agent of social equality promotion through the protection of minorities; consequently, expanding the power and authority of government at the expense of the privacy and individual freedoms of other citizens.

Leaving power after a coup orchestrated by high Tories that feared the definitive dismantling of the old order due to the highly unpopular poll tax, Thatcher forced to political ostracism. A bourgeois optimist, the Iron Lady discovered the advantages of the aristocratic pessimism toward politics and the humankind and became much more conservative out of power than she had been in power. Moral and cultural issues, which had been relegated to the second plane during her premiership, come to occupy an increasingly important place in her political reflection, as attested in her latest book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (2002).

A Conservative Party full of spineless politicians like John Major and May, buffoons like Boris Johnson and globalists like Cameron made Thatcher’s critics on the right miss her. Scruton once confessed in a debate with Marxist Terry Eagleton that, concerning current politicians, Thatcher was a true statesman.

The very Thatcher with so many contradictions and nuances, who was able to “oppress, intimidate and seduce” the British people, offered the necessary leadership for a dramatic moment when all the certainties had faded. Historical figures like her dispense easy explanations. The free market champion may have inadvertently destroyed the United Kingdom that the Conservative Party was created to preserve.

Almost three decades after the Iron Lady was retired, it is impossible not to judge the current British political crisis as the consequence of a lack of reliable, capable and fearless leadership. The struggle for Brexit is a struggle for the survival of a society proud of its traditions and origins, a struggle that the old Thatcher, the pessimistic Thatcher, would surely be willing to face.

Homepage photo credit: Margaret Thatcher reviewing Bermudian troops. Author: White House Photo Office. Wiki Commons.

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Silvio Simonetti Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.

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