Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The "Iron Lady" Or "The Immaculate Misconception?"

During her over eleven year stay at Number Ten Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher inspired emotional responses from revulsion to adulation and analyses from scathing to laudatory. This characterization of the responses to Thatcher’s governments also broadly describes much of the writing about them both during and after their duration.

Political ideologies are notoriously hard to characterize definitively, and Thatcherism is no different. The most that can be said of a definition of Thatcherism is that it encompasses a certain set of principles, values and ideas that hint at policy directions but do not themselves represent any specific policy direction. This difficulty of defining Thatcherism is reflected in much of the writing on Thatcher’s politics.

Dennis Kavanaugh broadly defines Thatcherism as an ideology that supports the values of a strong state and a free economy. In an attempt to further nuance this broad definition, Kavanaugh argues that Thatcherism is best presented in terms of propositions. These propositions help to characterize the main features of Thatcherite ideology. They include limiting government power over individuals, allowing generally for more individual freedom of choice, promoting economic growth through free markets and insuring that the state is adequately equipped to maintain law and order at home and abroad. Kavanaugh, as will be seen with other commentators, also characterizes Thatcherism as a fissure with the past. He argues that her ideology, considered by itself as an ideology, represents a departure from the “Butskellite” consensus of the post-war years and shows a new departure in British political thinking.

Peter Riddell, somewhat differently, begins his definition of Thatcherism with the assertion that it is much more a series of moral values and an approach to leadership than anything approaching an ideology. Riddell argues that these moral values can be defined as “Victorian,” and encompass such notions as self-respect, initiative, choice, freedom, conviction, duty and faith. Also important for Riddell are the ideas that Thatcher is on a “mission” to save Britain and that in this mission she is confident, dominant and has the courage of her convictions.

Eric J. Evans states, more definitively than Kavanaugh or Riddell, that Thatcherism does not represent a coherent political ideology in any meaningful sense of the term. Evans argues that Thatcherism has an ideological nature, but it is best understood as a series of precepts similar to those enumerated by Kavanaugh and Riddell. Evans further asserts that the importance of Thatcherism lies not in the novelty of its ideas (something he, Kavanaugh and Riddell all deny) but in the specific political context of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. In this context, Evans locates the novelty of Thatcherism in the fact that Thatcher actually believed in precepts that most politicians of the day, even other Conservatives, found “unbelievably crude and shallow.” This, coupled with ideals that had been instilled (and remained) with her by a domineering father in a lower middle class, non-conformist home-hard work, responsibility, thrift, prudence-became the driving force of her personal ideology and by implication her policy agenda.

Distilling these moral propositions and proclivities which would come to define (in one way or another) her policy goals and agendas, Hugo Young posits that Thatcherism is best understood as the interaction of two personal qualities that define Thatcher and her view of the world. The first of these is moral rectitude; her appeals to righteousness colored her policies and her understanding of her role as Prime Minister. The second was pragmatism, which could soften convictions and allow for compromise in order to secure the greater political good (and stay in the good graces of the electorate). These two personal qualities intertwined and reacted on each other to form, for Young, what would come to be called Thatcherism.

Another Thatcher biographer, John Campbell, sees in Thatcherism an apparent paradox. While he also sees that Thatcher’s “moral compass” was set by her upbringing and were essentially conservative, old-fashioned and puritanical. Campbell sees these values at odds with what he calls a “culture of rampant materialism.” She believed in thrift yet incurred record government debt; she supported the idea of the family but also furthered policies that fragmented families and made them endure economic hardship; she believed in the uniqueness of Britain but her policies didn’t reflect anything that was necessarily uniquely British. Campbell asserts that Thatcher rode this seeming liberalizing tide in society and the economy, “averting her eyes” from the consequences when something insulted her values. How could she manage such dissonance?

Campbell posits the notion that the real unique quality of Thatcherism is that Thatcher discovered that most of society is middle class. Most post-war governments, according to Campbell, seemed to assume that the bulk of society was working class, and thus worried about such things as unemployment. Thatcher saw society, at least by the late 1970’s, for what it was-predominantly middle class and thus concerned with prosperity and consumption rather than production. She took advantage of this realization by tailoring her ideology and policy to making sure the middle class felt prosperous and therefore friendly to the government. The paradox is thus explained: Thatcher was a class warrior, but for the middle class. It was her abiding values, coupled with the realization that the socioeconomic nature of Britain had fundamentally changed, that best define Thatcherism as an ideology.

In considering the last of the broad interpretive factors surrounding Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, that of her leadership style and legacy, certain prevalent themes emerge. One of the most important of these is consistency. In a much-quoted speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October of 1980, Thatcher proclaimed “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” Bruce Arnold argues that this predilection for consistency was a ruse, that Thatcher manufactured this notion that her views were unchanging. She was, in fact, perfectly willing to compromise and change as she had done many times in the past.

Thatcher, argues Arnold, like all politicians was adept at telling people what they wanted to hear. Young encapsulates his view of her leadership style in the phrase “one of us.” He argues that Thatcher sought out and found like-minded “fellow travelers” on her quest to remake Britain and save it from decades of decline and a pervasive national malaise.

Young also argues that Thatcher was driven by a sense that she was immersed in a constant battle, always with her “back to the wall.” Thatcher would, ultimately, win these perceived pitched battles because she saw herself on a quest to save Britain and make her great again.

Another broad characteristic of Thatcher’s leadership style is the lack of a search for consensus in policy or ideals. Riddell argues that this lack of interest in forging consensus was defined not so much by her policies but by the aforementioned “Victorian” values: middle class achievement, striving, sound money, family and the assertion of Britain’s role in the world. Riddell also argues that it was these views, coupled with the policies that were inspired by them, that led Thatcher to become popular with her “new Tory” supporters in the working class. This notion, conversely, also led her to clash with members of the “Establishment,” senior civil servants, academics and other sectors of the middle class for whom the maintenance of the post war consensus was important.

This point is also underlined by Kavanaugh in saying that Thatcher is much more of a “mobilizing” sort of leader rather than a “reconciling” sort that Thatcher’s so-called “mobilization” leadership, coupled with her focus on core values led to the problems in her cabinets. This problem in keeping ministers is most starkly underlined by the fact that by her resignation in November of 1990, she was surrounded in the Cabinet Room not by friends or people whom she trusted.

Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and the historiographical view taken of her are, as could be noted of many politicians, a mixed array of triumph and failure. Considering the academic commentary on Thatcher and her premiership, certain conclusions begin to present themselves.

Thatcherism is best understood not as an ideology, for it has poorly defined contours, uncertain boundaries and no plan of action dictated by its precepts. It does, however, have an ideological nature, based on certain core values that can be called “conservative”: a belief in self-reliance, the rights of the individual, a minimum of state intrusion and the place of Britain in the world as one of its great powers. It is these values, coupled with a leadership style that values consistency and a lack of consensus that best defines Thatcherism. It is not an ideology nor is it a style of leadership; it is a combination of the two with the unique personality of Thatcher herself.

In considering Thatcher’s policies, the most persuasive view, combining much of the academic writing on the subject, is one of mixed success and failure. Her economic policies, inspired by her values, did seem to improve the economic lot of the nation, or at least certain sectors of the population, such as the middle class and the more affluent working class. More generally, Thatcher’s policy seemed to lead to an increased sense, certainly by the 1987 election, of prosperity across the nation and a more secure feeling that Britain’s economy was finally back on track.

Thatcher’s other great area of success that of winning elections must also be viewed in their context. It may be true that the Conservatives won in 1979 and 1983 because Labour was weakened, disorganized and out of step with the electorate. This, while less the case in 1987, showed the strong hold that the Thatcher image and style had come to have over the British electorate. The shifting nature of the support for the Conservatives, however, redefines this notion of the strong hold of the Conservative message. With the growth in working class support, the Conservatives saw a decline in support in their traditional “stronghold” of the middle class. This was due to Thatcher’s style, her lack of concern with consensus and a growing feeling that the prosperity they enjoyed was not her doing, but the result of economic forces out of the government’s control. In this light, therefore, Thatcherism (such as it was) may be seen as a victim of its own success.

Margaret Thatcher stands as one of the seminal British political leaders of the twentieth century. Her blending of ideology and policy, style and substance into a seemingly coherent ethos for her age is a marvel of political image making and skill. While her policies had rather mixed results, her personality as it constituted her image showed all of the marks of a master of the art of politics. In a certain sense, the last chapter of the Thatcher legacy is yet to be written. As the Conservative party of the 1990’s, under the leadership of John Major, presided over an again sagging economy, increased dissention over Britain’s place in Europe and a nascent Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Thatcher legacy is still very much an open question. While Thatcher the politician is truly a study in ideology blended with style to produce results, Thatcher the policy maker’s effect on Britain must be viewed much more cautiously. The “Iron Lady” will continue to fascinate and complicate the discussion of late twentieth century British politics for generations to come.


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