Revolutionary conservative

Revolutionary conservative

Thatcherism has reconfigured our imagination of the state

Margaret Thatcher achieved that rare distinction of being more than a leader or a prime minister. She became,to use W.H. Auden’s phrase about Freud,a whole climate of opinion. Her political success was unparalleled: Britain’s only woman prime minister,its longest-serving post-war prime minister,the only leader to win three successive general elections and hold all major cabinet portfolios. She stood tall,diminishing all those who surrounded her: friends and foes alike. But her transformation of not just the British but the global ideological landscape was without precedent. Whether “Thatcherism” is a coherent political ideology is debatable. But what is less debatable is the fundamental ways in which it transformed the modern world,for good or for ill.

It has been hard to get a full measure of what Thatcher and the modern conservative movement represented. Her conservatism was marked by deep paradoxes. The first is that her conservatism was not a defence of old institutions. On the contrary,it was the first truly revolutionary force in post-war British politics. British conservatism,for the most part,had been constituted by a combination of elements,each of which she overturned. Its intellectual style was empirical,sceptical and anti-utopian: conservatism borne out of a deep appreciation of the fragility of the social order.

Thatcher’s conservatism was by contrast ideological,driven by passionate belief and,in its own way,sustained by a utopian belief in free markets. Traditional conservatism adhered to what might be called the British Ancien Regime: traditional institutions,forms of class deference,aristocratic noblesse oblige and a range of cherished institutions of authority,from the Church of England to Oxbridge and the BBC.

In this sense,British conservatism cut across party lines. Even the Labour Party,some exceptions apart,was infected with this culture. What it added to it was a large dose of state welfarism. But it never seriously assaulted that ancien regime. Thatcherism was the political force that finally took on these traditional institutions. It replaced hierarchical deference with a rugged and competitive individualism,and let markets corrode all traditional institutions. It is also one of the ironies of history that the Conservative Party was seen as empowering new constituencies more than Labour. A remarkable number of Conservative leaders since Thatcher have been from “humble backgrounds”,to use that very British phrase. Conservatism represented new social change; it made old institutions look out of touch. And no wonder,the joke went,the only opponents of Thatcherism were elite institutions like Oxford,BBC and the The Church of England.


Conservatism was also wedded to empire and the whiff of white privilege. Thatcher did not attack those,but she unleashed their demise. Her political fame rested on that remarkably decisive piece of decision-making and then winning the war in the Falklands,a kind of last settler outpost. Despite these appearances,she was the first prime minister to genuinely understand that Britain was not an imperial power any more,it needed to carve out its place in the world much more intelligently. Her appalling soft peddling on issues like apartheid and the authoritarianism of Pinochet still rankle. But not being on the side of the future was not her monopoly. When I was a student in England,the very same people who were criticising her on these matters were campaigning that Oxford give an honorary degree to the Ceausescus. But in hindsight,the open acceptance of a rank instrumentalism of the free market,also dissolved the traditional sense of being British. If London is truly a global city,it may have less to do with an overt ideology of multiculturalism than the power of money creating its own dissolvent force.

Thatcher’s domestic legacy was,of course,both relentless and divisive. Her economic legacy is mixed. She rescued Britain from its winter of discontent,broke the back of the unions in ways that transformed British politics for ever. Contrary to popular perception,she did not radically cut the state. Spending during her tenure actually grew; the current austerity makes her look like a big spender. But her actual impact is more debatable. While union membership declined from 50 to 18 per cent during her tenure,the decline in manufacturing continued. Her tenure saw two recessions,and unemployment was higher at the end of her first term than when she took office. And in that sense,she soon discovered that economic management in the modern world may require more judgement than ideology. She diffused property widely,even as inequality grew,creating a home ownership revolution and stakes in share markets. She reconfigured our imagination of the state in so many ways. Her espousal of free markets was unprecedented. But what was also unprecedented was the institutional imagination she brought to the state. The state was no longer about a community of fate: it was simply a provider of services for which it charged.

But in a sense this was the most paradoxical thing about her conservatism. More than the espousal of free markets,it was about relentlessly measuring the value of money. From the plausible proposition that even the Good Samaritan needs money,she drew the erroneous conclusion that everything was about money. It is an image that stuck to her: from the milk-snatching minister to the architect of the poll tax. And this mentality infected the state all the way down,to the point that it became self-defeating. It began to corrode all those virtues and institutions whose foundation cannot be money: civic solidarity,trust in the state,reciprocity in social relations. The Thatcherite assault on the cultural mores of elitism had resonance; but there was more than a touch of philistinism in it that stemmed from obsessing about the price of everything and not wondering about its value.

But whatever her critics might say,she was a leader,in the truest sense of that word. She came to power at a moment when the West’s self-belief was tottering in the wake of stagflation and military uncertainty. Along with Ronald Reagan,she drew that clear line in the sand. Like all leaders,there was something authentic about her. She had the confidence of a self-made politician,not encumbered by either the confusions that the guilt of privilege produces or the craven desire to find acceptance. A rarity in politics,she defined herself as someone whose job it was to lead public opinion,never to pander to it. Towards the end of her career,this same stellar quality increased the distance between her and her associates. All those who take it upon themselves to change history will one day be fooled by it. But Margaret Thatcher managed to change it more than most.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’,