Lessons From Thatcher

In the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death much of the commentary has focused on the impact of her economic policies.

But the manner in which she pursued her free-market vision also merits scrutiny.

Although she was undoubtedly driven by conviction, the representation of Thatcher as an aggressive, uncompromising ‘iron lady’ is misleading. She was in fact a highly pragmatic, and brilliant, strategist, capable of wielding the ‘carrot’ as effectively as the ‘stick’. Thatcher promoted many initiatives which seemed at odds with her economic beliefs, but which helped to popularise her broader vision of stakeholder capitalism.

For example, rather than selling public housing at market value, the Right to Buy scheme enabled tenants to purchase their home at a significant discount. This legitimised the wider privatisation programme among people on lower incomes - the very people regarded by the Left as her natural opposition - and created a more conservative electorate of homeowners. Thatcher’s government also pioneered many non-market based economic initiatives (such as Making Belfast Work) which aimed to pacify grassroots opposition to the government’s broader economic direction.

The common description of Thatcher as ‘divisive’ therefore obscures the more fundamental point that she built a strong consensus around her economic ideology. As Stuart Hall argued, Thatcherism was about much more than any particular policy; it aimed to transform the whole way in which people understood and thought about the world, to instil her ideology as the ‘common sense of the age’. Or to quote Thatcher herself; ‘to change the heart and soul’.

In this respect Thatcher was incredibly successful. It is sometimes said that New Labour, which added some social democratic elements to the economic terrain she established, was Thatcher’s greatest achievement. But the current UK government is arguably an even greater testament to the reach of her legacy. That a party committed to completing Thatcher’s ‘unfinished business’ (particularly in terms of reducing government spending) could be elected in the aftermath of the 2007 economic crash, which had its origins in Thatcher’s financial deregulation, is quite remarkable.

Of course it was not all down to her alone. Thatcher took power at a time of economic crisis, when social democracy had lost its authority and its relevance to a changing world, and when there was a historic opportunity to move society in a new direction. But the way in which she took that opportunity, the skill she displayed in reconciling a variety of interests around her agenda, her flexibility, her appreciation of the distinction between means and ends, and the compromises she was prepared to make in pursuing her broader vision, is something that revolutionaries of any persuasion can learn from.


The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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