Human affairs…in which nearly everything is paradoxical.
The media frenzy fizzled, patriotic sentiment defused, nostalgia negated—we can now explore the divided opinion and split interpretation of R.I.P Margaret Thatcher. Whether that is ‘rest in peace’ or ‘rust in peace,’ as some protesters shouted, is hard to determine.
“Margaret Thatcher was the best Prime Minister this country ever had. When wrecked by the unions, the sick man of Europe, and economically floundering, she turned our country around. She exerted British influence in Europe and oversees. She stood-up to the undemocratic trade unions, international terrorists and the communist block. She transformed the failing economy: slashing inflation by half, freeing private enterprise, empowering people to buy shares and homes, liberating the financial sector and turning London into a thriving metropolis. She was the first female Prime Minister, she was a ‘conviction politician’ and she won three consecutive elections.” So goes the eulogist argument.
From those that demonise Maggie, we hear a different spiel: ‘The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. She decimated communities, ruined our manufacturing base, failed to reinvest in council homes; she left office with rent four times higher and spending on housing 60% less. 64% of workers were without qualifications, not to mention the massive rate of unemployment, high inflation, the North of England rotting, social deprivation and riots. Her ideology stunk: no such thing as community, no such thing as social justice— just materialism, avarice and greed. She took us to a futile war and in her stubbornness, brought down her own authoritarian rule and ushered in a new age for Labour.”
So go the polarised views. To Maggie, much opinion was determined by ideology and personal experience. The rich loved her (she did, after all, slash the top rate of tax from 83% to 40%) the unions and the mass of unemployed loathed her. If from the South you were probably a champion, but from the North, an adversary. Either way, however you look at it, when Maggie was PM there was a clear Left Vs Right, a clear divide of opinion – a split nation – which was resurrected with her death.
Now, cards on the table, I am a card-carrying member of the Labour Party—so not instinctively pro-Thatcher. But, more interesting than individual opinion here is the perpetual presence of paradox about the Thatcher legacy. Her doctrine, policies and legacy leave a field of facts: people come along, select and then argue a certain stance. As a history student, this seems a rather dubious methodology. Clever people become simplistic advocates: armed with the ‘facts,’ tunnel vision established—Thatcher becomes a bitch or a beacon depending on the selected examples. But things are never quite so simple, and when ‘facts’ are taken together, paradox is revealed.
At the heart of Lady Thatcher’s doctrine lay paradox. She was a Conservative Party member who, on her own admission, was really a ‘nineteenth century liberal’: championing minimal government, a free market and advocating change as opposed to Conservative conservation and paternalism. She championed economic liberty but fused this with a ‘social authoritarianism,’ which came from a ‘neo-conservatism’ that stressed the importance of regulating morality, particularly sexual morality, in the private sphere. Her law and order policies were determined by – and propagated – moral doctrines. She was determined to curb the power of the unions but let the financiers run free in a deregulated market; and she praised the British NATION while saying there was no such thing as COMMUNITY.
Her international record was similarly prone to paradox. She championed the cause of freedom by standing-up to the USSR, exerting a force in Europe and defending the Falkland Islands from a nutty Argentinean. On the other hand, Europe was a means of enabling her beloved free trade; she handed over Hong-Kong and was on the wrong side of the apartheid debate. For all her rhetoric on fighting tyranny, she supported and admired brutal dictators like General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, Pol Pot of Cambodia and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet—an uneasy truth for her advocates.
According to Frank Cottrell Boyce, her notion of freedom was never a British one. It came from the USA and was inspired by an ideology that rejected the role of the state. But according to Boyce (I tend to agree,) the British have always seen the importance of the state: in the literary works of Milton, Blake and GK Chesterton, to name a few, and in the political struggles against the slave trade, votes for women, the fight against Hitler, and in the creation and safeguarding of the NHS.
Indeed, Thatcher had an inkling about this: she never touched the beloved NHS and for all the rhetoric on ‘rolling back the state,’ she abolished the GLC and brought most of the powers back to Whitehall. This lead to a new era of ‘quangocracy’ as Britain became one of the most centralised states in Europe. Her desire for a ‘share-owning democracy,’ which began in 1983 with the privatisation of state-industries, did not lead to a mass of shares in the hands of the many but a monopoly of financial institutions that subsequently pocketed the profits.
Her hounding of the unions and her status as a ‘conviction politician’ should not be divorced from the facts. She was rightly pragmatic, recognising Mikhail Gorbachev as a man she ‘could do business with.’ Her 1979 campaign was cautious and her manifesto light on specifics. In a battle with the unions in 1981—she ran a mile. Only in her second term was she ready for a fight.
As to her political and cultural legacy—that too appears somewhat contradictory. She secured three election victories for the Conservative Party but consigned them to years in the wilderness with what she dubbed as her most proud creation: New Labour. She espoused the Victorian morals of thrift, modesty and hard-work, but gave birth to a Yuppie culture of avarice, conspicuous consumption, ravish materialism and debt. She showed the power of social mobility as a humble grocer’s daughter turned PM, but presided over widening inequality in both opportunity and outcome.
In short—her doctrine, her time and her legacy was filled with paradox and contradiction. There’s a symbolic anecdote, however, which reveals that paradox is a natural and perpetual presence—not necessarily a bad thing nor an abnormal one and certainly something not solely confined to politics.
There grew a myth that Thatcher used to carry a copy of a key Enlightenment book, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in her handbag. This book came from a time and Enlightenment ‘project’ just as paradoxical as Thatcher’s. Kant’s essay, ‘What is the Enlightenment?’ revealed a key tension between questioning authority and obedience to authority. He argued for the liberation of the individual morally and intellectually but not politically—people should pay taxes and only the intelligentsia should question authority. This paradox was echoed by Moses Mendelssohn who said the Enlightenment was not a mode of thought but a form of education in which objective truth was good—but not necessarily for social and political beings.
Like Maggie’s time and legacy, the Enlightenment was contradictory. It gave birth to an ‘age of reason’ which coexisted with an ‘age of feeling.’ It grew into the nineteenth century— a period Thatcher harked back to while, paradoxically, being framed as a ‘revolutionary’— a time of rich and poor, revolution and conservatism, Sense and Sensibility, sport and earnestness, a vibrant civil society and a growing state.
As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities,
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…’
Historians are aware of the power of paradox. Chaos Theory has asserted that ‘a simple view of how the world works is being replaced by an essentially complex and paradoxical one.’ Thatcher’s legacy has shown, more than anything, that paradox continues to reign supreme. And so, maybe, with the myth of Adam Smith in her handbag as good a symbol as any, this is the best epithet for Margaret Thatcher: not bitch, nor beacon—but the Queen of Paradox.