Margaret Thatcher was a high conviction politician – a rare thing in modern, media cycle politics. Can you imagine Thatcher coming out one day and announcing “from now on you will be seeing the real Margaret”. No, Thatcher was the real deal from beginning to end.
Conviction is not sufficient for greatness but it did ensure that Thatcher was never diverted from her purpose to remake the UK economy, and society with it, on the basis of Liberal principals. What made Thatcher great was her instrumental role in ending the crisis of confidence suffered by Liberalism in the UK, and throughout the West, from 1914 to the mid-1980s.
The decades before WW1 were the golden era of Liberalism in Europe. The following key tenets of Liberalism reached a peak at that time.
1. The belief that individuals are the units of civilisation, and that individuals give up freedoms to create society; rather than society being the unit of civilization and society granting liberties to individuals. Hence the Liberal belief in the freedom of individuals to live and organise their lives as they choose and outside of traditional hierarchies and social orders if they wish.
2. The belief in Laissez-faire organisation of the economy and a minimal role for the State in the economy. The belief that the ownership and accumulation of private property is the right of individuals and generally has positive externalities. A belief in the equality of opportunity, the sweeping away of vested interest and the rule of law.
3. An optimistic view of progress by humanity and faith in the ability of reason and continual questioning of existing beliefs and understandings to elevate humanity.
WWI was an assault on each one of these tenants and caused a deep loss of confidence in them. The imperatives of total war led to suppression of the liberty of individuals through the censoring of the press, seizure of property, and most profoundly, the conscription of millions of young men into the armed forces to fight. The economy came under the close control of the State and was organised for war production and little else. The faith in human progress that was so characteristic of the pre-WW1 Western Europe was bleed out at Verdun, the Somme, Ypres and Passendale. Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for a Doomed Youth ends with: Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds. That drawing down of blinds was Europe’s loss of faith in human progress.
The West’s crisis of confidence in Liberalism was broadened and deepened by the events of the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the end of WWII there is a seemingly permanent shift of Europe’s mindset from Liberal Democracy to Social Democracy. After 1945 the individual is no longer paramount. A powerful and wide reaching State is needed for our collective protection and co-insurance. Pursuit of individual goals are deprecated and subordinated to the collective.
I shouldn’t go too far, but just in terms of the economy the UK sees widespread nationalisation of industries (railways, electricity, steel) and the creation of a welfare state in the decade immediately following WWII. During WWII Thatcher was at Oxford University, where by her own account she read Friedrich Hayek’s great critique of State control of the economy, The Road to Serfdom, in 1944, its year of publication.
Thirty five years after the end of WWII Margaret Thatcher was in 10 Downing Street preparing a Liberal campaign to remake the UK economy. Thatcher sought to restore confidence in key Liberal values – that is what makes her a great Liberal Prime Minister.
The idea Thatcher was a Conservative is absurd. She was a radical who sought to remake UK society and especially the economy, guided by her belief in: the primacy of the pursuit of individual goals and freedom of individuals to act without interference from the State; skepticism over the efficacy of the State and collectivist projects in general; belief in the benefits of the ownership and accumulation of private property; and opposition to vested interest. Thatcher was also a strident opponent of totalitarianism which is the polar opposite of liberalism.
Thatcher was a great Liberal because she was a key agent, perhaps the key agent, in the restoration of the West’s confidence in Liberal values.