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Mrs. Thatcher’s Revenge

Although a taste for the birch tends to be associated more with upper-class habits, the view from Grantham must have had something to do with Mrs. Thatcher’s growing antipathy toward the postwar consensus of social permissiveness and statist government. Her loathing for such “wet” toffs as Sir Ian Gilmour and Christopher Soames, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, probably came from the heart. She removed them both from her cabinet. Both took it badly. In the case of Soames, she “got the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid.”4 But class analysis only goes so far. Some toffs remained on her side, and her main enemy in the Tory party, the man who stood for everything she hated, that is, collectivism, Europhilia, and soft One Nation Toryism, was Edward Heath. Heath, her predecessor as prime minister, had strong Schlegelian tendencies, including a love of music. But his plummy accent was as carefully cultivated as Mrs. Thatcher’s honking delivery. Heath and Thatcher came from the same shopkeeper class. “Grocer” Heath was a favorite phrase used by some of those who wished him ill.

So far as the Kulturkampf goes, it is of course easier to like the Schlegels than the Wilcoxes. Many readers of this magazine will have shaken their heads in sympathy with Sir John Pope-Hennessy when he described Mrs. Thatcher’s utter indifference to the treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum.5 Dinner with Kenneth Tynan would certainly have been more fun than with Mrs. Thatcher’s even if he did go on a bit about bullfighting or Fidel Castro. But even philistines can sometimes be right. The postwar consensus was no longer working under Heath, or indeed under socialist prime ministers, such as Callaghan. The planned economy was a disaster. The pound sterling had to be bailed out by the IMF. Strikes were making life impossible. Trade unions, some of which were ruled by Stalinist pashas, had accumulated enough power to make or break governments. They broke Heath’s government in 1974, and they made and broke Callaghan’s Labour government four years later. The time was ripe for someone who had no doubts, who knew her mind, who had radical ideas and was tough enough to challenge the vested interests of union barons, as well as the patrician, not to say patriarchal, hierarchy of her own party.

Mrs. Thatcher’s brand of nineteenth-century liberalism was not new. Enoch Powell and other right-wing tories had been arguing a similar case for decades. What was new was the moral zeal (“conviction,” as she preferred) that Mrs. Thatcher brought to her campaign to trim the state and unleash private enterprise. Zealous talkers and thinkers, such as Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman, fed her a churning brew of Hayek, Popper, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. Businessmen, such as David Wolfson of Great Universal Stores, and Norman Strauss of Unilever, rallied round as well. Some of her most prominent recruits had an American background. The man who helped her crush the National Union of Mineworkers was a Scot named Ian MacGregor, who had spent most of his life in America. “John Wayne with a Scottish brogue and a pinstripe suit” is Charles Dellheim’s description. The minister responsible for privatizing state industries was John Moore, who saw the neo-liberal light while in business in Chicago. “Possession means power,” he wrote in 1986, “the kind of power that matters to ordinary people….”

In The Disenchanted Isle Dellheim calls them a “counter-establishment.” He is right. The fact that many of them—though not Hayek—were Jewish is not entirely incidental, but has nothing to do with Judaism as such. Macmillan blamed the supranational tendencies of the European Commission, the very scourge of Thatcherism, on Jews, which just goes to show that Jews can be blamed for anything.6 And who, after all, is credited as the founder of One Nation Toryism but Benjamin Disraeli? In fact, the ideas of Popper, Friedman, and Hayek originated in Vienna, but they could easily be read as an Anglophile homage to J.S. Mill, Adam Smith, Richard Cobden, and Victorian liberalism. Hayek believed that National Socialism was the inevitable outcome of the chaos created by German socialism. Only a return to solid Anglo-Saxon liberalism would protect democracy against future Nazis.

Here something fundamental clicked inside Mrs. Thatcher’s mind. A fusion took place between the Austro-German fugitives from Nazism and the Methodist from Grantham. Not only were socialists and patrician appeasers wrong, they were wicked, for if left unchecked they would produce a future Hitler. This explains Mrs. Thatcher’s Churchillian pretensions. On her first visit to Germany in 1975, she celebrated her elevation to the Tory party leadership by declaring war on socialism and making the V-sign—“all the more appropriate since I was in Germany.” She was going to fight World War II all over again, first against the enemies within, then against “Europe.” Wartime nostalgia, Kulturkampf, and economic policy somehow blended together. To get rich and possess property was to strike a blow for freedom. This ethos can sound harsh but is not automatically to be despised. It is shared by many immigrants, children of immigrants, and most Americans. Not all immigrants, to be sure: the Schlegel sisters would have disapproved, but then they were a figment of E.M. Forster’s imagination and he provided them with a splendid property smack in what is now suburban Thatcherland.


Mrs. Thatcher’s crusade of the self-made against the well-born was not conservative in the traditional British sense of the word. It was a radical challenge to the clubby way Britain was governed by Old Boy networks, based either on smart public schools, Oxbridge, and Pall Mall clubs, or on trade union connections. That is why it appealed to ambitious outsiders of all kinds, including a number of Jews, but also skilled workers, keen to break the bounds of their class, entrepreneurs who felt stifled by the state, financial scam artists, provincials on the make, disillusioned leftists, Americanophile stockjobbers, intellectual mavericks, and young rebels in a hurry. If Alfred Sherman, a crass, eccentric, Jewish ex-Communist, was a typical Thatcherite intellectual, then so was Paul Johnson, a crass, eccentric, Catholic ex-socialist. Mrs. Thatcher’s radicalism had something in common with the eighteenth-century rebellion against the Francophile Whig aristocracy; it was cultural, political, as well as moral. Like the nationalist rebels then, Mrs. Thatcher talked about restoring “ancient British liberties,” but she did so in the dogmatic, philistine, xenophobic manner of the early Methodist preachers.

But Mrs. Thatcher’s Poujadism was more complicated than simple class envy. She may have wanted the patricians to move over, but she, as well as many of her supporters, wanted to be toffs themselves, at least to dress like them, talk like them, and if possible buy houses like them. Where the old and the new guard differed was in their attitude to people who were less well off. Patricians liked to think they took care of their people. But many of those who had just made it into the middle classes resented paying for the welfare of those who had not. This was one reason for hating the welfare state.

The results did not always live up to her preaching. She effectively curbed trade union power, which most agree was a good thing. And she transferred many state monopolies into private hands, with mixed results (better telephone services, inefficient and expensive water and gas supplies). But she failed in the most important Hayekian enterprise: the state did not shrink much under Mrs. Thatcher; its functions—local government in particular—were merely displaced. More and more powers fell into the hands of semi-private unelected outfits known as quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations).7 Instead of restoring power to the people, an erosion of democracy took place; sources of power and authority became murkier. The only power that was visibly strengthened was that of the prime minister and her advisers.8 Her own cabinet ministers, let alone the parliament, were frequently excluded. As for Europe, she ranted and raved against it, but she signed the Single European Act in 1986, which committed the member states to a future economic and monetary union.

The problem with Mrs. Thatcher is that her Kulturkampf often got the better of her. The state according to Hayek is a mechanism for setting the rules for private enterprise and competition. You do not turn to the state for moral succor, cultural sustenance, or the meaning of life. Perhaps too many Schlegelians had depended on the state to support them. But Mrs. Thatcher set upon “vain intellectuals,” the BBC, libraries, universities, theater companies, and museums with fervor, as though they had to be punished for permissiveness and moral turpitude. To be sure, Mrs. Thatcher’s adversaries often reacted absurdly—starting a journal called Samizdat, for example, as though Thatcherism was a form of Stalinism. But it isn’t hard to see why. For there was a basic hypocrisy at work. The more Mrs. Thatcher’s dogmatic belief in the marketplace contributed to the coarsening of British life, the louder she hectored people about “Victorian values.”

Julian Barnes is a Schlegelian par excellence, a Francophile, vaguely leftish, metropolitan, sophisticated, in style even a trifle dandyish. Naturally, in his Letters from London, he deplores the slide from “liberal conservatism” to “Thatcherism,” or, as he puts it, accurately enough, from fudge to dogma. He catches her presence, her ton, very nicely:

She stands rather stiffly at the dispatch box [in Parliament], with swept-back hair, firm features, and an increasingly generous embonpoint thrusting at her tailored suit of Tory blue or emerald green; there, butting into the spray and storm of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, she resembles the figurehead on the prow of some antique sailing ship, emblematic as much as decorative.

His pieces hang together, because most of them deal in one way or another with the tawdriness, the vulgarity, the greed of a nation busy selling off “the family silver” (Macmillan’s phrase).

It is of course typical of a Tory grandee to regard nationalized industries as “family silver.” It is equally typical of a grand writer not to seem to understand why Thatcherism was popular with so many people, for so long. Barnes is so filled with disdain for Mrs. Thatcher’s style that he misses her main attraction: many people felt she was offering them a chance to “make it,” to forget their places. And many of them did, at least until the next recession whacked them. Mrs. Thatcher believes that capitalism is “the creed for the common man.” In theory, the pursuit of money gives everyone a fair shake, denied in systems based on totalitarian dogma or the privileges of birth. True, when people with little cultivation get greedy, it is not a pretty sight. But if gentlemen do not like the smell of money, it is because they usually have enough.

  1. 4

    The Downing Street Years (Harper-Collins, 1993), p. 151.

  2. 5

    The Fall of a Great Museum,” New York Review, April 7, 1989, pp.10-14.

  3. 6

    See Perry Anderson’s superb article about the European Union in the London Review of Books, January 4, 1996.

  4. 7

    The sharpest analysis of this phenomenon is by Andrew Marr, in his book Ruling Britannia (London: Michael Joseph, 1995).

  5. 8

    One of the wittiest books written about the Thatcher era is by Alistair McAlpine, entitled The Servant: A New Machiavelli (Faber & Faber, 1992). In the style of Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince, McAlpine describes the role of the Prince’s ideal servant. The Prince must be kept in power, so he may carry out the Idea: “The Servant’s task is to see that nobody hinders the implementation of the Idea. This is not a handbook for those who would compromise.” McAlpine was treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party under Mrs. Thatcher.

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