The history of Britain in the last thirty years, under both Conservative and Labour governments, has been dominated by one figure – Margaret Thatcher. Her election marked a decisive break with the past and her premiership transformed not just her country, but the nature of democratic leadership. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she inherited the Britain of the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent, and the Sick Man of Europe. Twenty-five years on, Britain’s economy became the most dynamic in Europe. London the most cosmopolitan city in the world, as the New Labour government took Thatcher’s ideas further than ever before. But by 2006, Britain was also the most heavily regulated country in the non-socialist world, with every aspect of public activity relentlessly audited, and power more centralized than any other mature democracy. The instrument of centralization and audit was the Treasury, whose Thatcherite policies were carried to their apogee by the most controlling Chancellor of modern times, Gordon Brown.
Simon Jenkins – Thatcher & Sons – A Revolution In Three Acts
Much continues to be made about the remarks of Margaret Thatcher, and for the political left, non more so than when she was being interviewed by Douglas Keay for the Woman’s Own. Her remark: “There is no such thing as society” prompted a media frenzy, failing then – as it continues to do – to place her remark ‘in its proper context’. Most unusually a statement elucidating the remark was issued by No.10, at the request of the Sunday Times and published on 10 July 1988: it follows the interview transcript.
All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. [ Margaret Thatcher]
The statement added:
She prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.”
In her interview with Douglas Keay her remarks about society occur in the following, extracted from paragraphs that need to be read in their full context:
“I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
The other remark by Margaret Thatcher, now quoted regularly by both the political right and left is ‘You can’t buck the market’. Again taken out of context as support for, or condemnation of, a ‘free market‘. While Thatcher may have been inclined to the view that market forces should prevail, the market that couldn’t be bucked was that of foreign exchange rates, and on that she has yet to be proved wrong. In a free trade and fiat money world, it’s the international markets that determine such exchange rates. A conviction she held despite the views of her favourite Chancellor Nigel Lawson on exchange rate intervention..
As we all should have learned from experience, the one fundamental way in which we weaken the free market economy is by turning aside, for whatever reason, from basic financial and economic orthodoxy. If governments fail to keep a close control on monetary growth; if they allow public spending over a period of years to increase as a share of their national income; if they continue to borrow to finance expenditure and so build up a huge burden of debt; if they do these things, they cannot reasonably complain if the world economy weakens. And if by artificially controlling the exchange rates between countries you try to buck the market, you will soon find that the market bucks you — and hard.
Nor would I myself search for scapegoats — either inside or outside Britain. What we have to do is to learn the lessons of what has happened. The first and general lesson is that if you try to buck the market, the market will buck you. The state is not there to gamble with the nation’s savings. Consequently, intervention in the exchange markets should be embarked upon with the greatest caution and within clearly understood limits.
In an article by Michael White and published in the New Statesman, with the title The making of Maggie, White remarks on ‘the lava flow of books written about her life and achievements (150 of them, by some counts?). He says that ‘Jenkins declares Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to be her bastard children: an observation truer than many would wish’. A popular phrase of the left which they and not Jenkins coined, perhaps first used by the socialist extreme left in their recognition of the velvet putsch by Blair, Brown and Mandelson, the New Labour troika. As White goes on to say: ‘Love her or hate her, she was always good copy and she changed the political weather’. Like Banquo’s ghost Thatcher’s spirit haunts socialists and with similar effects. Yet they can’t lay this ghost to rest they need a scapegoat, a distraction from the political failure of New Labour in their displacement of one set of conventional assumptions about the economic role of the state by another set.
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