Thatcher's Dead But Thatcherism Thrives

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On the day that news reached us of the death of Margaret Thatcher, it's appropriate to reflect on the significance of the Iron Lady for Australia. Her death is big news around the world because of her pivotal role in the late 20th century's battle for ideas.

Thatcher was not just a cold warrior and union buster who swept a new broom through the sclerotic British economy. She was perhaps most important because she came to be seen as the personification of neoliberalism. Long after the hatred for Thatcher herself became a matter for history, the economic ideas she pursued linger on. Margaret Thatcher remains controversial today because, more than any other politician in the English-speaking world, she symbolises the ideal of the free market as the single dominant philosophy of conservative politics.

For those trying to understand the significance of those ideas to contemporary Australia, look no further than Tony Abbott's last major speech, delivered at the 70th birthday celebrations for the Institute for Public Affairs.

The IPA is Australia's most notorious conservative, free-market think-tank. As well as being viscerally opposed to mainstream climate science, the IPA is the banner-waver for neoliberal economic policy in this country. Its much-publicised laundry list of policy prescriptions includes many ideas that have since been adopted as Coalition policy, including essentially abandoning all meaningful action to reduce emissions and abolishing the Department of Climate Change. There's plenty of other deregulatory, pro-market and anti-welfare ideas in there too, such as abolishing paid parental leave, privatising the ABC and SBS, and abolishing federal income taxation.

Although she was an early supporter of action to limit climate change, many, if not most, of these ideas would no doubt have appealed to Margaret Thatcher. Political history conspired to make her reign the most obvious discontinuity between the postwar certainties of the Keynesian welfare state, and the late century world of smaller government, employment insecurity, rising inequality and financial excess that followed it.

In part, this is because of post-war Britain's pursuit of cradle-to-grave welfarism. The welfare state of William Beveridge and Aneurin Bevin that Britain created in the immediate wake of World War II was a forerunner and in many cases the prototype for welfare states the world over. As Tony Judt writes in his magisterial history of post-war Europe, Beveridge's best-selling wartime report on poverty recommended a welfare policy resting on four main planks: a national health service, an adequate state pension, family allowances and near full employment.

As Bevin, the founder of the NHS, later wrote, “the National Health Service and the Welfare State have come to be used as interchangeable terms, and in the mouths of some people as terms of reproach. Why this is so it is not difficult to understand, if you view everything from the angle of a strictly individualistic competitive society.”

If Thatcher believed in anything, it was indeed in this idea of a “strictly individualistic competitive society.” While her remarks about there being “no such thing as society” are often taken out of context, Thatcher really did believe in the primacy of individuals over collectivities, especially the state. “Thatcherism” as a suite of policies came to mean deregulation — especially financial sector deregulation — privatisation, and the promotion of free markets and free enterprise, all married to a set of so-called “Victorian” values such as patriotism and personal responsibility that many lower- and middle-class British voters found very appealing.

Thatcher's inimitable personal style also suited the times. Before she came to office, Britain had suffered through half a decade of economic malaise, brought on by the first oil shock of 1973-4. The resulting “stagflation” of low growth coupled to soaring inflation imposed huge economic hardships on ordinary citizens, as well as spurring a wave of strikes across many vital British industries, including the coal industry that the UK relied on for electricity generation.

In 1978-9 — the so-called “winter of discontent” under Labor PM James Callaghan — the country seemed to many voters essentially ungovernable, the unions out of control. Widespread strikes meant even graves were left undug. Thatcher's hardline response to union power and social ennui seemed to delight many Britons. One of her ministers termed it the “the smack of firm government”. 

Through all of her travails, Thatcher enjoyed the one-eyed barracking of much of the British media, especially the conservative and red-top daily newspapers controlled by Rupert Murdoch. It was during Thatcher's reign that Murdoch's media empire in Britain enjoyed its first blush of memetic dominance, helping to set and maintain an agenda hugely advantageous to the Conservative party. Thatcher's high-risk decision to fight a war against Argentina for the distant Falkland Islands was particularly popular with working class voters, helped along by a liberal serving of jingoism from papers like The Sun.

Although Thatcher's passing paints the struggles of her successors in David Cameron's Conservative Party in a rather unflattering light, it's not hard to notice the imprint of her styles and ideas in the words and speeches of Tony Abbott. After all, Abbott is at pains to assert his carriage of the legacy of John Howard, and Howard himself was a follower of Thatcher's, and, once he left the Fraser government, an enthusiastic supporter of her policy agendas.

In his book Battlelines, Abbott explicitly mentions Thatcher as a conservative heroine, but beyond the personal admiration, he is clearly enamoured of her union of moral responsibility with economic laissez-fairism:

The Liberal Party, he writes, should work for an Australia where:

“[P]oliticians can less easily make excuses for railing to address problems; where more responsive health and education services are available to everyone, where government is in sympathy with the individual and families trying to get ahead; and where the values and the institutions that have stood the test of time are respected should always be the goal to which our party is committed.”

Not that this is unusual among conservative thinkers in Australia or elsewhere. Thatcher's union of conservative values and economic neoliberalism continues to dominate the thinking of right-of-centre political parties throughout the English-speaking world. Elsewhere in Battlelines, Abbott writes approvingly that Howard's three tests for public policy were strengthening the family, giving individuals more incentive, and giving preference to private over government enterprise.

The nexus was obvious for all to see at last week's IPA dinner. Who did we see at the celebration, but Rupert Murdoch himself? In his own speech to the dinner, Abbott eulogised Murdoch as “the Australian who has most shaped the world through the 45 million newspapers that News Corp sells each week and the one billion subscribers to News-linked programming”.

A few minutes later, Abbott then praised Murdoch as a man who “never changed his fundamental principles”, which he lists as “greater personal responsibility, smaller government, fewer regulations and support for open societies that don’t build walls against the world” — in other words, Thatcherism.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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