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Margaret Thatcher's Unintended Legacies

She wanted a conservative, middle-class England. She delivered anything but.

Owen Frankin / Corbis

Around the time she came to power, one of Margaret Thatcher’s close aides described her to me as “the reality principle in skirts.” It is an image that evokes a different age. In 1979, there were no computers in Downing Street. Telephone calls were routed through a switchboard, and no one could make a call from his desk. Rolls Royce and Jaguar were state-owned companies; electricity, gas, and water were public utilities; government had a majority stake in British Petroleum; British Airways was a nationalized industry. But by the time Thatcher was ousted in an inner-party coup in 1990, all those enterprises and more were in private hands. The transformation that occurred during the Thatcher years has been seen as the work of her powerful will, and in some ways so it was. Yet it was also a continuation of powerful trends: British manufacturing had been shrinking for much of the century—a process that advancing globalization would only increase. By breaking with the policies of the past, Thatcher in fact accelerated changes in the economy that were already underway.

But economic policy was not for Thatcher the final end of politics. As she put it in an interview in 1981, “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.” She succeeded in her object, though not in the way she wanted. With the exception of the monarchy, no British institution has the authority that most British institutions possessed when she became prime minister. The hierarchical and deferential Tory Party that Thatcher inherited has been replaced by a faction-ridden shell in which no leader is safe, while Scotland is pondering independence and the future of the Union is in doubt. The bourgeois life of the 1950s— an idealized image of which she aimed to re-create: a middle-class world of secure livelihoods, dutiful families, and prudent saving for the future—has vanished without trace, along with the working-class communities that underpinned British industry. Dreaming of restoring a country that she believed was in danger of being lost, Thatcher brought into being one she could not have conceived. Britain became less collectivist and more entrepreneurial in spirit, while at the same time the middle-class life to which she was so devoted withered away.

Covering the time from Thatcher's birth up to her role in the Falklands war in 1982, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands is one of two projected volumes; but this is already a major study of a pivotal leader—indeed, it is already one of the greatest biographies in the English language. A former newspaper editor and Conservative insider but “never part of her ‘gang,'" Charles Moore brings a detached and inquiring perspective to Thatcher’s life that she never thought of adopting herself. He begins by noting that Thatcher had little taste for introspection: “At his trial, Socrates famously said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. He had not, of course, met Margaret Thatcher.” The Socratic maxim is, of course, a philosopher’s conceit. Thatcher was able to do what she did because she did not waste energy in self-analysis. The Falklands War, for example, was a tremendous gamble, which she took in the clear knowledge that it could be the end of her as a politician. She was aware of the hubris that might flow from being the first female war leader with executive power in British history since Elizabeth I—but even so, as Moore notes, “she was always very cautious about analysing herself, even in private.” Writing Thatcher’s life, Moore tells us, the biographer “finds himself examining a life unexamined by the person who lived it.”

A profound study of Thatcher as a human being and not just as a politician, Moore’s book contains a number of revelations about her personal life, including the early romantic attachments that she formed and broke off before meeting her husband, Denis. Their partnership was not always easy. In the autumn of 1964, Moore reports, Denis suffered “a nervous breakdown,” in the course of which he left for two months in South Africa and “may even have contemplated divorce.” Denis always denied that the crisis had anything to do with his wife’s absorption in her political career, but her daughter, Carol, reports that there were friends who believed that he felt isolated. Yet without her husband—who, while being more politically extreme, was also a more equable character—Thatcher would have been lost. Her declining years seem to have been much sadder after his death.

In one of many arresting vignettes, Moore recounts how, in an afternoon walk from school just before Christmas in 1942, the young Margaret Roberts explained to a friend why she couldn’t believe in angels: “I have worked out scientifically that in order to fly, an angel would need a six-foot long breastbone to bear the weight of its wings.” Born in 1925, Thatcher seems always to have remained a religious believer; but the manner in which Britain’s future prime minister approached this particular aspect of Christian belief displayed the methodical turn of mind that she brought to every aspect of her life and her career.

As her adviser later suggested, Thatcher had an innate sense of reality—a rarer quality among political leaders than is often supposed. Remarkably, this expanded rather than limited her view of what was politically achievable. In a throwaway comment, Moore refers to Thatcher’s “unique contribution to British politics—the art of the impossible.” The danger of thinking of politics as the art of the possible, Thatcher noted in a speech in Toronto in 1975, a few months after she became party leader, was that things that seemed to be impossible “would be possible, indeed desirable, if only we had more courage, more insight.”

Installed by Labour in 1945 and accepted by the Conservatives, the postwar settlement had by the mid-1970s reached a dead end. Thatcher grasped that a different path was necessary. But she was able to act on this insight only as a result of an improbable succession of accidents. Born into the lower echelons of the provincial middle classes and growing up in the Lincolnshire town of Grantham, where her father owned grocery stores, Thatcher was not destined to be the leader she would become. Winning a scholarship at a fee-paying girls’ grammar school, she was the first woman in her family to go to university and the first person to go to Oxford, where she faced a shortage of money. When her father visited her at her college, he found her toasting a tea-cake by a fire for which she was rationed one scuttle of coal a week. Admitting that she felt “shy and ill-at-ease,” she sought comfort in solitary walks. Her isolation was increased by the fact that she was a scientist—one of only five female chemists in her year at the entire university. At the undergraduate Conservative association, which she joined after arriving in Oxford in 1943 and of which she would later become president, she was “merely tolerated.” In the view of the grandees who ran the Tory club, Moore writes, “she was a ‘slogger’, without star quality.”

She contended with similar reactions for many years. When, after several unsuccessful attempts elsewhere, she presented herself as a potential parliamentary candidate before Conservative Party members in Finchley in 1958, she expected “that the usual prejudice against women will prevail and that I shall probably come the inevitable ‘close second.’ ” When she was selected to stand for the seat, the outgoing member of Parliament, Sir John Crowder, was reported as complaining that the Conservative Central Office had “[imposed] a choice on the constituency between ‘a bloody Jew and a bloody woman.'" But it was in Finchley that Thatcher benefited from the smile of fortune that would accompany several formative moments in her career. Appearing alone, since Denis (whom she had married in December 1951) was in Africa on business, the thirty-two-year-old Thatcher cut a striking figure. Speaking with force and confidence, she impressed the local party chairman so much that he misreported the final vote on her candidacy. “She didn’t actually win,” he told his son on the night. “The man did, but I thought, ‘He’s got a silver spoon in his mouth. He’ll get another seat.’ So I ‘lost’ two of the votes and gave them to her.” Unknowingly, Thatcher entered the House of Commons as the result of a well-meaning act of electoral fraud.

A confluence of accidents enabled Thatcher to become party leader in 1975. When Edward Heath lost power in 1974 after failing to gain support from voters in his struggle with the powerful mining union, the Tory hierarchy soon concluded that he had to go. But there was no agreement on who should replace him. No one imagined  that it would be Thatcher, who came to be seen as a potential leader only after others had effectively ruled themselves out. Keith Joseph, an intellectually volatile Fellow of All Souls who was later a close ally of Thatcher’s, had damaged his leadership prospects irreparably when, in October 1974, he made a speech in which he seemed to advocate eugenic policies aiming to reduce the numbers of children born into poor families. Edward du Cann, a member of Parliament and a city figure who had been a moving force among those who decided to force Heath out, eventually withdrew, perhaps fearing too much scrutiny of his business affairs. Had either Joseph or du Cann stood for the leadership, Thatcher would probably not have put herself forward. As Moore records, the Tory establishment “pulled out all the stops” against her, while most constituency heads and 70 percent of the party rank and file supported Heath.

Without the backing given her by Airey Neave, wartime escaper from the German prisoner-of-war camp at Colditz and connoisseur of the art of intrigue, Thatcher probably would not have won. Moore gives a full account of Neave’s role, but he underplays how decisive it proved to be. Promoting Thatcher’s cause through a campaign of disinformation, representing support for her as being higher or lower than he knew it to be as circumstances demanded, it was Neave—no doubt helped by a mismanaged campaign on the part of the Heath camp—who secured the leadership for Thatcher against the odds. He did not live to see her in power. Going on to be head of Thatcher’s private office and shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Neave was killed by a car bomb planted by the Irish National Liberation Army when driving from the House of Commons in March 1979. (His private secretary, Ian Gow, who became one of Thatcher’s closest aides, was murdered in 1990 by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which in 1984 had nearly succeeded in killing Thatcher herself in a bomb attack in Brighton in which five people were killed and more than thirty injured.)

During much of Thatcher’s early career she accepted the conventional Conservatism of the day. When she was appointed to her first ministerial position by Harold Macmillan in October 1961, she saw herself as applying the principles of the Beveridge Report of 1942, which laid the foundations of Britain’s postwar welfare state, and the Paper on Employment Policy of 1944, which—strongly influenced by Keynes—emphasized the responsibilities of government in managing the economy. In 1966, Moore notes, Thatcher supported British entry into what was then the European Common Market, and not only because of the trade benefits that entry would bring: "'The Common Market is political as well as economic ... if we went in for political reasons—the concept of a united Europe or prolonged peace—I believe we should.'"

By the time she became leader in February 1975, Thatcher was convinced that a break had to be made with the previous generation of Conservatives. Here Keith Joseph, who believed that he truly “converted to Conservatism” only as late as 1974, was a powerful influence—not only in encouraging Thatcher to break with previous Conservative thinking, but more importantly in leading her to think of Conservatism as a systematic body of belief, an ideology. For most in the party and the country at the time, Conservatism was not any kind of theory at all, but instead—as the skeptical conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott liked to put it—a disposition, which featured an enduring attachment to familiar institutions and practices: “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or may be.” Conservatism in that sense was not a notable trait in Margaret Thatcher. Though she was more pragmatic during much of her period in power than is generally recognized, she believed that British institutions needed radical reform and looked for an ideology that would justify the shake-up.

The transmutation of Conservatism that ensued would prove to be one of Thatcher’s most problematic legacies. An early sign of the shift was a document that Joseph submitted to the new Shadow Cabinet in April 1975, titled (echoing T. S. Eliot) “Notes towards the definition of policy.” Thatcher’s attraction to a more doctrinal type of Conservatism was reinforced by Alfred Sherman, a former communist who together with Joseph founded the Centre for Policy Studies. Sherman referred to Thatcher as a person of “beliefs, not ideas.” He meant the description as a compliment, and it is true that Thatcher displayed no interest in exploring the paradoxes that were inherent in her convictions. In the early years of her time in power, this was one of her strengths.

The atmosphere of Britain in the 1970s is not easily conveyed to those who did not experience it. Mad plots sprang up, with some talking of Britain being on the brink of a communist takeover. While this was never remotely likely—a chaotic type of syndicalism and an accelerating economic decline were the real dangers—a sense of impending disaster shaped thinking on the wilder shores of the right. Industrial conflict reached intense levels, with hospital porters and gravediggers among the public-sector workers resorting to strike action. On the fringes of politics, where he had been exiled by Edward Heath after his infamous anti-immigrant “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968, Enoch Powell was a brooding figure given to confiding over dinner that his greatest regrets were not being killed in World War II and failing to be selected as a high-priority assassination target by the Irish Republican Army. The millenarian mix of dark pessimism about the recent past with unbounded optimism about the near future that can be heard in much of Thatcher’s rhetoric dates from this period.

Sure-footed in his account of Tory divisions, Moore gives too little weight to the way in which Labour’s inability to tackle the unions was a condition of Thatcher’s rise. The “winter of discontent” of 1978–1979 formed the background against which Thatcher came to power, but it was only the climax of a decade of failure on Labour’s part. The failure went back to the end of the 1960s, when a government paper called “In Place of Strife” proposing curbs on union power, produced by the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle, was shelved by Harold Wilson’s government. Rightly, Moore describes Castle as being “after Mrs Thatcher, the most important woman politician in British history.” He omits to note that, if Castle’s proposals had been implemented, Thatcher’s proposals would not have been necessary.

No one talked of “Thatcherism”—a term that became current only later, through its use on the left—but by the late 1970s the need for an ideology was being proclaimed on the right. What emerged was a hegemonic way of thinking rather than a coherent body of thought. If Thatcher had anything like a political creed, it was riddled with contradictions. Moore reports her recalling that she read “Hayek’s little masterpiece,” The Road to Serfdom, shortly after it was published in 1944, while “in the 1970s she used to pull his The Constitution of Liberty out of her handbag, declaring ‘This is what we believe.'" She cannot have digested the book’s postscript, where Hayek explained “Why I am not a Conservative.” Hayek told me sometime in the 1980s that Thatcher viewed herself as having always been a Tory, not an Old Whig like himself. But Hayek was by then not so much an Old Whig as an avatar of Herbert Spencer, the late-nineteenth-century prophet of laissez-faire capitalism who invented the expression “the survival of the fittest.” Thatcher seems not to have noticed the faux-Darwinian theory of social evolution with which Hayek embellished his devotion to the free market.1

Neither she nor Hayek considered the fact that the central principle of The Constitution of Liberty—the claim that law evolves spontaneously, without anyone designing it—was inescapably flouted in circumstances when law had to be deliberately created, as was the case when Thatcher came to power. The nub of Thatcher’s first administration was the assault on trade unions, which required the construction of a new legal framework to curb their activities. A similar contradiction appeared in Thatcher’s treatment of local authorities, which she regarded as a bastion of socialism: in order to limit their powers, she had to expand those of central government. The pursuit of Hayek’s idea of a “spontaneous order” in society required a major expansion of state power.

When I talked with him during the Thatcher years, Oakeshott dismissed this idea—rightly, as I came to think—as “rubbish.”2 The soundness of this judgment was illustrated by an exchange I had with Thatcher in 1987, not long after she was elected with a large majority to her third term in government. There was talk of her abolishing academic tenure, and mainly out of curiosity—since I had no hopes of changing her mind, and knew that after some huffing and puffing the universities would submit tamely to whatever she decided—I raised the matter. Was she aware that her avowed academic supporters amounted only to a few dozen people? She showed no surprise. Might not tenure be justified—as in the United States—in that it gave protection to such a minority? The suggestion evoked an icy glare. I soldiered on. Wouldn’t abolishing tenure only increase intellectual opposition to her policies? At that point, she delivered her verdict: “We’ll win without you.” Using the power of government, Thatcher went on to sweep away the practice of tenure.

Robert Pierce / Fairfax Media / Getty Images
If Thatcher changed Britain beyond recognition, it was not through her policies but through their unforeseen effects.

Oakeshott’s own standpoint, which stressed the importance of practice over any kind of theorizing, corresponded with the sentiments of many in the Conservative Party. But it had little practical value in the conditions of Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Depending on the existence of a viable political tradition, it passed over the fact that what had become the traditional way of doing politics—the emergence of Conservative leaders from a charmed circle of party grandees, the cozy chats about industrial relations over sandwiches at 10 Downing Street—no longer worked. That was one reason why Thatcher had come to power. It is not surprising that she looked around for an ideology, though what she found had all the defects of the genre.

Thatcher’s quest led her to the Conservative Philosophy Group, which Moore describes as “an informal society, set up by Hugh Fraser and Jonathan Aitken, which mingled politicians and men of the world with writers and thinkers.” The notion of a Conservative philosophy was not then as oxymoronic as it has since become, but there can have been few who attended the meetings solely from an interest in intellectual inquiry. As Moore notes, a feeling of excitement pervaded the group. Having attended some of the meetings when they were held in the drawing room of Aitken’s home near the House of Commons, I suspect the sensation came from a belief that the group somehow participated in the exercise of power. Some of the guests who attended as speakers—who included Richard Nixon, as Aitken later disclosed—may have reinforced this illusion. The group’s deliberations had no detectable impact, then or later, on anything that Thatcher did in government. (A former Cabinet minister whom some had seen as a potential prime minister, Aitken was sentenced in 1999 to a term of imprisonment for perjury after the collapse of a libel action he had brought against The Guardian, a newspaper. While in jail, he converted to Christianity.)

From the beginning, there were many in the party who resisted Thatcher’s way of thinking. In a speech in February 1980 that Moore cites, Ian Gilmour—a languid “wet” who had been editor of The Spectator in the 1950s and was then a member of Thatcher’s Cabinet—opined, “In the Conservative view ... economic liberalism, à la Professor Hayek, because of its starkness and failure to create a sense of community, is not a safeguard of political freedom but a threat to it.” Along with the rest of Thatcher’s wet critics, Gilmour wanted a well-managed continuation of the settlement put in place by Labour in 1945; but it had broken down irretrievably when Labour proved incapable of reining in the power of the unions in the 1970s. Deplored by her critics, Thatcher’s adversarial style was well suited to British politics through much of the 1980s. Summarizing this period, Moore writes that “it was as if the Labour party was determined to realize Mrs Thatcher’s binary, divided picture of British politics.” In a ballot to replace James Callaghan as party leader in 1980, Labour rejected Denis Healey—one of the most formidably gifted politicians Britain has produced—and opted for the unelectable Michael Foot instead. In 1981, Labour split and the Social Democratic Party was formed. The historic role of the SDP was to divide the opposition and keep Thatcher in government, a task that it performed ably.

Thatcher's policies were not as radical—or as consistent—as many have supposed. Viewed by many as an enemy of the welfare state, she left it larger than before. State spending between 1979 and 1990 fell only slightly, while welfare spending rose substantially. Just over 10 percent a year when she came to power, inflation was running just below that figure when she left. A sharp critic of European integration, she signed the Single European Act in 1986, locking Britain into the European decision-making process. She was a vocal supporter of Britain’s meritocratic grammar schools, but as secretary of state for education in the Heath government of 1970 to 1974, she closed many of them, and the policy of favoring comprehensive schools continued during her eleven years as prime minister. She said often that she wanted to apply a housewife’s idea of making ends meet to the nation’s finances, but by the time of the coup against her, the deficit was rapidly rising.

If Thatcher changed Britain beyond recognition, it was not through her policies but through their unforeseen effects. Thatcher never subscribed to the Hegelian and Marxian view, revived by Francis Fukuyama at the close of the 1980s, in which history is a dialectical process leading to a higher kind of harmony.3 When told of Fukuyama’s ideas about “the end of history,” she reacted with scorn: “End of history? The beginning of nonsense!” Ironically, there was a kind of dialectical logic in the effects of her policies—but it was nothing like that imagined by Hegel and his neoconservative disciples. Rather than leading to any higher synthesis, the changes that she set in motion had a self-defeating effect of the sort common among revolutionary movements.

The endpoint of Thatcherism was not her ousting from power, which she might conceivably have avoided if she had taken the threat to her more seriously, but a society in which a conservative disposition has no place. While Thatcher’s supposed mentor Hayek never ceased calling attention to the unintended consequences of socialism, neither of them considered the unintended consequences of unleashing the free market. The settled middle-class life of the 1950s to which Thatcher looked back with nostalgic reverence was an artifact of Labour’s postwar settlement, which stabilized society through the power of solid institutions and strong government. When, in the 1970s, the Labour settlement began to crumble away, so did this settled way of life. Rather than reversing the process, Thatcher’s free-market policies had the effect of completing it. A society based on lifelong marriages and careers cannot co-exist with an economy driven by unfettered choice and the pursuit of short-term gains. Selling off municipally owned council houses was one of her flagship policies, but the eventual consequence was a housing boom in which saving and productive investment were overshadowed by debt-fueled speculation as a source of wealth. The free market that Thatcher promoted actually worked to undermine and to dissolve middle-class values.

The country that emerged was in many ways the opposite of what she wanted: less rigidly stratified and class-bound, but also more divided; more individualistic, but also less bourgeois. In some ways, it was a better place in which to live than the country to which she dreamed of returning. When Thatcher first crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street, British society was still ruled by semi-Edwardian hierarchies. Bien-pensants in the media and the academy who could not believe that Britain would change irrevocably as the result of the rise to power of a lower-middle-class interloper were left gaping when the seemingly unshakable certainties on which they based their careers were abruptly overturned. And a similar shock was in store for the patrician upper reaches of the Conservative Party. One of the Tory old guard’s complaints against Thatcher was that she let outsiders into government. As a quip attributed to Harold Macmillan had it, her Cabinet contained “more Estonians than Etonians.” Her policies of deregulation had an analogous effect. Having been an exclusive club, the city became more open. Again, Thatcher voted for the 1960s reforms that liberalized laws on abortion and gay sex, and while she went on to support an illiberal clause in the Local Government Act of 1988 requiring that local councils “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality,” the more relaxed sexual attitudes that prevail in Britain today flow partly from the greater individualism that she promoted. While British society is less cohesive than it used to be, it is also more tolerant and pluralistic.

While the result was very different from that which she intended, Thatcher gained a lasting hold over Britain. That the dispensation she put in place lasted for hardly thirty years is unexceptional. The preceding Labour dispensation endured for not much longer. What is striking about the regime shift Thatcher brought about is that it persists in the realm of ideas despite the fact that its economic basis has collapsed as a result of the financial crisis. A slogan circulating among the zealots in the right-wing think tanks in the mid-to-late 1980s proclaimed that “Labour will never rule again.” As could be foreseen, Labour embraced the regime shift that had occurred, returning to a long stretch of power under the aegis of Tony Blair—one of the more unfortunate unintended consequences of Thatcher’s rule. In turn, Blair (possibly with the assistance of P. G. Wodehouse) gave birth to the breathless, bumbling figure of David Cameron, who while distancing himself from Thatcher pursues policies of privatization of basic state functions—such as the justice system—more extreme than any she ever considered. With all the mainstream parties holding to the terms of Thatcher’s settlement, ideas and actualities are as far apart in Britain as they were in the mid-1970s.

Beyond the small world of British politics, the jumble of notions Thatcher assembled when dealing with a local crisis became an ideology that was universal in ambition—a species of inverted Marxism, which the fall of communism seemed to vindicate. Thatcher’s anti-communism was clear-sighted and unyielding—more so than that of Ronald Reagan, who might almost have given away the Western nuclear arsenal at a summit with Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986 if she had not persuaded him otherwise. When communism imploded a few years later, Thatcher became fixed in the view that liberty was advancing throughout the world, with herself in the vanguard. The delusion of a “new world order”—when what was unfolding was in fact another bout of traditional disorder—can be seen as a footnote to this belief.

Summing up Thatcher’s outlook, Moore writes of her “unusual mindset, which was both conservative and revolutionary.” It is a shrewd observation, but Thatcher’s reactionary nostalgia and revolutionary dynamism had something in common: the sturdy individualism to which she looked back was as much a fantasy as the renewed bourgeois life she projected into the future. Her project of using economic policy to effect a change in the soul was the same fatal conceit as socialism, differing only in its imaginary outcome. By the time she fell from power, she had herself become a kind of phantasm in the public mind. Yet in consigning 1970s Britain and its floundering elites to the memory hole, Thatcher was an embodiment of the reality principle. Pursuing an unexamined and impossible vision, she had an impact beyond any she could have imagined.

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and the author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (Farrar Straus Giroux).

  1. It is curious that Hayek, who had presented an incisive critique of scientism—meaning here the unwarranted imposition on the study of society of the theories and methods of natural science—in his book The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason ( 1952), should have gone on in his later writings to defend a theory of cultural evolution in which some of the worst features of scientism are displayed. Interestingly, Thatcher—herself trained as a scientist—showed no interest in theories that attempted to understand society in scientific terms.

  2. Karl Popper was also highly critical of Hayek’s notion of “spontaneous order,” telling me that if there was such a process in society it was often malign and destructive in its effects. Popper’s close friendship with Hayek inhibited him from developing this difference between them in any systematic way.

  3. I criticized Fukuyama’s original essay, “The End of History?“, which appeared in National Interest in the summer of 1989, in an essay in National Review, October 27, 1989, which is reprinted under the title “The end of history, again?” in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, London, Allen Lane, 2009, Chapter 16, 217-223.