Few come on the world political stage with the strength and determination of a Margaret Thatcher. Her demise in the morning of Monday 8th April at the age of 87 has led many to ask why so many years after she left office as Prime Minister of Britain, she is still remembered more than her successors in office. The answer is that, once she saw the bigger perspective of the office she was called upon to assume, her personality changed. She was metamorphosed and no longer a grocer’s daughter. The personal transformation was perhaps the trigger that made her defiant, unorthodox and confident enough to overhaul a whole system of beliefs and values that had crystallized – and even paralyzed — into an overall underperforming Britain so far.
Not many would recall that post World War II Britain in the 1970s was in such bad shape that one German newspaper qualified it as the “sick man of Europe”. Its institutions, operating under the sway of social Fabianism, were becoming old and lazy. The dominant theme of economic governance in those days was about having a “mixed economy” with the state running enterprises that were considered to have strategic importance to the country and correcting private sector orientations that were deemed inimical to the ‘public good’.
There was a consensus among the ruling elite about the need for an encroaching state corporatism. No one realized the extent to which this system was sapping the dynamism that Britain had stood for at a time when it was seen venturing out to the very outskirts of the world. That ideology of a bigger world outside was dying out.
Britain had become an almost stagnant place, a stagnation that was taking an awful toll. If you wanted to extend the telephone line at your place or in the office, that required approval by the state monopoly which would send an engineer to look into the matter in the next six months. The same level of inefficiency was to be expected from the state electricity “boards” and other public utilities. A fallen empire, Britain was struggling to regain its marks as a once brilliant performer on the global stage but, in reality, it was clogged down, unable to extricate itself from apathy and decline. This is the Britain Margaret Thatcher inherited when she became Prime Minister in 1979, the first and only woman to occupy this position so far.
This sorry state of affairs provoked her into action on a scale that was unimaginable at the time. She knew that the whole thing needed to be drastically reformed. Very quickly, she started de-constructing Britain’s state dominated economy. She ushered in a new era of liberalism. Taxes were cut. People were empowered to own their own homes and enterprises. State monopolies were swept away. Markets were freed.
Trade unions which had held governments at ransom in the past were neutralised, thanks partly to the inept handling of issues by Arthur Scargill, leader of the union of miners. Facts of misgovernance were quickly exposed to her steely regard. She would deal with them as they deserved – pitilessly and without the least compunction. As state enterprises gradually disappeared, the low-tax, high enterprise economy of Britain brought in a huge and sustained influx of talent and money into the country and overhauled it into a new dynamism which is continuing today.
“Privatisation” was born as the new dominant credo for efficiently running society and the economy. A new ethos was born: “the best government is least government”. Exchange controls had already been thrown out, as early as 1979. By 1986, when she had won the elections for the third consecutive term, the entire market was awash with a new wave of deregulation. They called it the “big bang” of the City.
In the Cabinet and out, she was impatient to get things done. She rubbished many colleagues when they resisted her moves. She did not yield to demands from Euro sceptics from within the Conservative Party that Britain should withdraw from the EU. She hit hard and struck rather a big bargain with the EU for Britain’s share of contribution to the EU budget. It is she herself who had signed the Single European Act in 1986 for Britain’s accession to the EU.
Britain had not seen so much of determination and drive in its political leadership for long. She shaped a new Britain not only by her irreverent iconoclasm of long-held domestic political values. Unlike the lesser and ephemeral political leaders of her times, she did not ask, when taking political decisions, how something she was intent on doing would play out in the polls. She was plain frank, not interested to decide how her political decisions should be spun to gain better mileage.
It is perhaps this factor of not caring for consequences on her own career for decisions being taken that undid her at last when she would not give up the poll tax that everybody had to pay up to indistinctly. Her colleagues pounced on her once the unpopularity of this decision hit the Conservative Party and she decided to resign in 1990.
Her style of doing things nevertheless gave to politics and political management such a revolutionary aura that the British Labour Party, the main rival of the Conservative Party which Margaret Thatcher headed, had to wake up brutally from its somnolence to an altogether new reality. It was soon christened ‘New Labour’.
Tony Blair revived this party by openly endorsing the very liberal “Thatcherite” policies that had been the antithesis of what old Labour had stood for in a not too remote past when it had remained at the beck and call of the unions. In other words, the three successive victories New Labour secured subsequently under Blair mirrored the liberal, free market legacy of Thatcher herself.
On their part, Margaret Thatcher’s successors were unable to get their act together to espouse the trail blazed by her once she left, so concerned were they with internecine quarrels. But the impact of the political transformation was carried further forward.
Margaret Thatcher’s ideas about the new liberalism travelled to all corners of the world. Ronald Reagan, her contemporaneous leader of America, adopted equally liberal market policies. So, the trans-Atlantic alliance between Britain and America flourished. The amount of confidence the world started gathering once the era of deregulation and free markets was asserted with force on both sides of the Atlantic led to the end of the Cold War.
Mikhail Gorbachev allowed himself to be persuaded that it was not worth the while carrying forward the tensions occasioned by the bipolarity between the US and the USSR. The breakup of the communist bloc as announced by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, opened up new avenues for the emergence of an altogether different and more cooperative world than what we had seen before Thatcher. It was Reagan who brought this about, together with Gorbachev but Lady Thatcher had helped to make it happen by instilling confidence into a liberated new world order.
While many condemned the Britain under Thatcher which continued to back the apartheid regime of South Africa, there are praises, on the other hand, for the breakthrough made by ushering in, thanks to her policies, an era of rapid globalisation. Widespread high economic growth across all parts of the world has liberated hundreds of millions of people, notably in India, China, Africa and Latin America, from the throes of deep poverty. The world’s global aspirations are much higher today than the low levels they were at when Margaret Thatcher first came on the stage barely three and a half decades back.
The shift in emphasis towards giving better expression to individuals, rather than fostering mutual solidarity, under her policies helped bring the highest amount of post-war prosperity to the world than ever before. Unfortunately, the unfettered pursuit of market liberalism, while increasing all round growth, also fostered unprecedented inequality the world over. It was perhaps an unintended consequence of her market liberal policies that the ‘invisible hand of greed’ accompanying the burst of global growth in past decades, would bring the world to great grief in 2007 with the oncoming of the international economic crisis.
Be that as it may, she was a towering political figure the like of whom the world would have to bring on the stage from time to time, if only to give new orientation whenever the bigger machine appears to have been paralysed or incapable of figuring out new and better ways of breaking out of straight jackets.
It was with some amount of trepidation that I went once to attend a presentation by Margaret Thatcher at the Sir Harilal Vagjee Hall in Port Louis when she was invited to give us insights into her style of management of the affairs of state. She spoke with great lucidity, conviction, vigour, directness and without any meandering, quite exactly the stuff I had imagined her to be made of.
I could not have hoped for a more brilliant exposé from a politician of her calibre. Her reputation was not overdone.
* Published in print edition on 12 April 2013