A nanny no, a Medusa...maybe

March 3, 2000

Next month, the University of Buckingham is holding a conference on thelife and influenceof Margaret Thatcher, its first chancellor. Left, David Marsland discusses Thatcherism's intellectual legacy, while, right, Fred Inglis considers its impact on academia.

Throughout her political career, Margaret Thatcher's natural instinct was for action rather than words. Her every act was shaped, however, as much by deeply considered ideas as by judicious attention to practical circumstances. The ideas that combine to comprise "Thatcherism" - some of them novel, some as old as civilisation - derive from myriad sources, ranging from Robert Peel to Milton Friedman and from John Bunyan to Keith Joseph.

Constituted into innovative ideological arguments and radical political programmes in the 1970s and 1980s, they provided a challenging alternative to the political orthodoxy dominant since 1945, if not since 1900. In 11 triumphal years between 1979 and 1990, and with a moderated extension until 1997, Thatcherite ideas won all the arguments. The stale and failed theories of state socialism, social democracy and limp liberalism yielded across the board to the ideas that comprise Thatcher's intellectual legacy.

They can be considered under four headings: economics, welfare, culture and foreign affairs. In each of these spheres, radical Thatcherite ideas successfully challenged orthodox theories, initiated fundamental changes in public policy and catalysed the metamorphosis of the Labour Party.

Under "new Labour", the Thatcherite intellectual legacy - despite denial, dilution and camouflage - lives on, shaping economic and social policy decisively and mitigating old mistakes, even on the cultural front and in foreign affairs.

It is resisted, with stubborn clumsiness and in increasing desperation, only by Luddites in the universities, the media, the unions and the civil service.

The intellectual revolution in economics began before Thatcher, when Denis Healey was obliged in 1976 to summon the International Monetary Fund to bail out the profligate Callaghan government. Thereafter, under the Iron Lady's active supervision, Keynesianism has been subjected to a merciful euthanasia, "tax and spend" has spent its last, taxes can be raised only by stealth, monetarism is king.

This permanent revolution in economic management was neither a mechanical adaptation to changes in the global market, as new Labour theorists suggest, and still less, as the left claim, a product of class spite. It was and is the result of a radically changed understanding of the economy that highlights competition, profit, privatisation, deregulation and labour-market flexibility. It signals victory for Anglo-Saxon ideas and total defeat for the European social model. It represents Lady Thatcher's most profoundly significant intellectual legacy.

The Thatcherite revolution in welfare policy was no less radical. With Keynes dethroned, Lord Beveridge was to be unfrocked. In this second sphere, however, there was no alternative theorist of the stature of Friedman in economics, there was more resistance to reform and time simply ran out. Reform was therefore only partially successful between 1979 and 1997 and it is going pretty slowly under Tony Blair.

Nonetheless, the intellectual revolution in welfare initiated by Lady Thatcher succeeded. In terms of ideas and ideology, the welfare state of the 1940s - old Labour's model of British socialism - is a dead letter. Self-reliance is now seen as normal, state assistance as exceptional, temporary and conditional. Work and enterprise are morally sanctified. Fat-cats, so-called, are key government advisers. Council houses continue to be sold off.

Even in the education system and the National Health Service, modernisation is being pressed forward, with privatisation deployed unapologetically wherever it seems likely to be useful.

Indeed, so successful has the Thatcherite revolution in welfare theory proved, that - supposing the left intelligentsia would let ministers use the sentimental concept of "poverty" intelligently - new Labour's approach might foreshadow eventual de-nationalisation even of education and health care and restoration of responsibility for welfare across the board to individuals and families, where it belongs.

Some Conservative critics of Thatcherism argue that the years 1979-97 saw excessive attention to the market and economics and systematic neglect of cultural and moral issues. In this, they conspire to some degree with critics on the left who interpret Thatcherism as a vulgar celebration of selfishness and greed. This seems to me a mistaken sociological judgement.

First, because Thatcherite economic and welfare theories presuppose cultural change and moral progress; they positively require effort, initiative, self-discipline and self-reliance; they outlaw dependency and re-instate a coherent concept of human nature. Second, because Thatcher's intellectual legacy includes, over and above this, a whole raft of crucial cultural imperatives that had been lost and forgotten in the climate of moral permissiveness initiated in the 1960s. These include the moral value of work; the importance of marriage, family and parenthood; the necessity of punishing crime and supporting victims; the inescapability - not least in education - of standards and therefore of judgements of worth; and the positive value of discipline and legitimate authority.

In all of these and many other areas, Thatcherism accomplished, against hysterical resistance, a remarkable transformation of the decadent climate that prevailed virtually unchallenged before 1979. Despite dangerous concessions to self-styled liberationists and libertarians on some cultural fronts, Mr Blair is apparently - to the bewilderment of the chattering intelligentsia - continuing and even strengthening this cultural and moral aspect of the intellectual legacy of Thatcherism.

Before 1979, foreign policy analysis was dominated, even in Conservative circles, by unthinking internationalism. Patriotism was old hat, nationalism beyond the pale and British self-denigration de rigueur.

The Falklands war changed all that, and the Gulf war entrenched a new spirit of national self-confidence on the world stage. Underlying active participation in these latterday crusades, however, there was also an intellectual argument against defeatism and casual internationalism that Lady Thatcher presented, led and decisively won. To her arguments for the market, self-reliance and moral standards, she added a reinvigorated concept of the nation-state.

Mr Blair has in part welcomed this inheritance, as he demonstrated forcefully to the chagrin of old "internationalist comrades" in his party by supporting Clinton's missile raids and by his courageous leadership over Kosovo. On other fronts, he has squandered this legacy. Partitionist devolution of power to Scotland and Wales is a risky move. Trusting the IRA is riskier still. Labour's apparent enthusiasm for the euro and for "ever closer union" with Brussels is perhaps the greatest threat of all - to Mr Blair's future, to the interests of the British people and to this fundamental aspect of Lady Thatcher's intellectual legacy.

David Marsland is professor of health studies at Brunel University. His book Welfare or Welfare State? has a preface by Margaret Thatcher.

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