The Thatcher Paradox

The Iron Lady’s surprising legacy

by , April 10, 2013

The queen of the Anglosphere is dead. In death, as in life, there is no middle ground where Maggie Thatcher is concerned: leftists dance in the streets, celebrating her demise, while conservatives mourn the passing of the “Iron Lady.” The irony is that she was never guilty of the alleged crimes attributed to her by the former, just as she never really earned the approbations of the latter.

British leftists are dancing a jig because they believe Thatcher introduced the politics of “austerity,” victimized the poor, and was a relentless reactionary to the end: the truth is that her timid and gradualistic approach to dismantling the British welfare state failed, and failed spectacularly, as Murray Rothbard pointed out at the time here, here, and here. The “Thatcher revolution” had the same success rate as the “Reagan revolution,” i.e. it never succeeded in rolling back the advancing role of the State in British society, only in slowing its galloping onset to a brisk trot. As British libertarian Sean Gabb points out, as Prime Minister she was a corporatist, rather than an advocate of free enterprise. Worse, from a libertarian point of view, she was a dedicated enemy of civil liberties whose depredations against traditional British respect for individual rights paved the way for the current Orwellian control freaks who have turned Merrie Olde England into Airstrip One.

My own take on the Thatcher Era, as they’re calling it now, comes at the Iron Lady from a somewhat different angle: her role as cheerleader for and hectoring advocate of America’s post-cold war bid for global hegemony. When George Herbert Walker Bush told her he was allowing a single Iraqi ship to violate the embargo in the run up to Gulf War I, she told him: “Remember, George, this is no time to go wobbly.”

When Bush II invaded Afghanistan and prepared the nation and the world for the conquest of Iraq, Lady Thatcher came out with some “Advice to a Superpower,” as her New York Times op ed piece was entitled. Citing Milton’s Areopagitica – “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks” – she likened Islamism to the threat of “Bolshevism” and issued a call to arms: after 9/11, she averred, “America will never be the same again,” and “consequently, the world outside America should never be the same again.”

A bizarre statement, to be sure, because what it means is that America must be the measure of all things: if any harm comes to America, it must mean the world – the whole world outside our borders, presumably including Britain – must suffer. While this attitude of unmitigated narcissism was well nigh universal in the States, it was rarely said so explicitly: what’s odd is that it was given voice by a British Prime Minister. Yet not really all that odd, come to think of it: that’s been the role played by the British government ever since the end of World War II – actively lobbying for a more interventionist American foreign policy, and berating its former colony whenever Washington threatened to “go wobbly.” From Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech to Maggie’s op ed exhortations, the Brits have taken it upon themselves to goad a “noble and puissant nation” to greater feats of world-saving. The British empire may be long dead and buried, but the Anglosphere, through its American extension, still carries the White Man’s Burden on its back.

As Britain sank into the quagmire of socialism, exhausted by war and socio-political anomie, Kipling’s heirs deposited the burden of empire onto the backs of their American cousins. Noting this passing of the torch, the libertarian polemicist Frank Chodorov, writing in 1947, characterized America as a “Byzantine Empire of the West“:

“Even now, while the British Empire is hardly laid away, the outlines of a new imperialistic picture are clearly discernible. In the West a lusty heir apparent is flexing his muscles, while the ponderous bear in the East is bellowing his ferocious lust. It looks like another Armageddon is coming down the line.”

However, as Chodorov pointed out, the Byzantines, issued from the loins of Rome, did not fare as well as their Western predecessors, either in terms of longevity or global expanse. As America walks the road taken by our British forebears, we are moving at an accelerated pace, burning fuel – resources, both economic and human – faster than Cecil Rhodes ever did. The British captured their empire over the course of centuries, while ours was bequeathed to us in one large windfall. This fatal legacy will be our undoing.

In the days before 9/11, it looked as if that “noble and puissant nation” might avoid the fate of all empires and start attending to its own business, but it was not to be: the terrorist attacks were a clarion call to those who pined for American “global leadership.” It was the perfect cover for reconstructing the cold war atmosphere of constant crisis and perpetual war, and conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic jumped at the chance. Thatcher explicitly likened the new enemy to the old one: Islamism, like “Bolshevism,” is an “armed doctrine,” the province of “fanatics” bent on destroying the Western Way of Life. Nothing less than “an extensive military commitment” will do as a response. And it wasn’t just Osama bin Laden and his boys who were to be targeted, according to Thatcher: the “rogue states” of Iran, Syria, and Libya may have been critical of Al-Qaeda, denouncing the 9/11 attacks when they occurred, but they still constituted a “menace” because they opposed “Western values” and “backed terrorism.” They, too, must feel American wrath. Oh, and don’t forget North Korea – “as mad as ever.”

As mad as the North Koreans may be, are they any crazier than our very own neocons, whose world-conquering agenda Thatcher applauded? We laugh at Kim Jong Un, who unconvincingly threatens to bomb Austin, Texas, in response to provocative military exercises a few miles from the Demilitarized Zone: yet no one laughed when the neocons (and Maggie) told us we had to go after Saddam Hussein in response to 9/11.

The North Korean militarists rule a nation on the brink of mass starvation: their air force doesn’t have enough fuel to get more than half its fighters off the ground. On the other hand, our own militarists stand at the head of “the only global superpower,” as Thatcher put it in her op ed piece, “indeed a power that enjoys a level of superiority over its actual or potential rivals unmatched by any other nation in modern times.”

The Iron Lady could always be counted on to provide a tag-team partner for Washington’s latest grudge match, subordinating British national interests to the imperative of American imperialism. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened Britain up to reprisals, and British Tommies died on both battlefields: British taxpayers were forced to bear the cost of wars that had nothing to do with defending the British people. Tony Blair did more than his part in making this possible, which is why the commentators are right in declaring that Thatcherism’s greatest “achievement” was Blairism.

This is usually meant in the context of domestic policy, with the Blair-ized Labor Party ditching its former more or less full-throated socialism in favor of a crony-state capitalist model, but it applies to the foreign policy sphere as well. Before Blair, Britain’s Labor Party was dominated by CND‘ers and decidedly hostile to the regime-change schemes of American neocons: after Blair, famously derided as “Bush’s poodle,” the idea of the former British empire signing on as Washington’s junior partner was no longer considered beyond the pale on the British “left.”

Thatcher is often likened to Ronald Reagan, not only in terms of their outsized personas, but as avatars of conservatism triumphant. Both are said to have presided over “revolutions” in the domestic affairs of their respective nations, but – even giving their dubious “revolutionary” credentials a pass – both surely failed. Britain, like America today, is a social democracy, that is, a welfare state with crony capitalist characteristics. Thatcher not only failed to stop the relentless advance of British statism, she actively aided it, as Rothbard pointed out during the poll tax riots:

“Thatcherism is all too similar to Reaganism: free-market rhetoric masking statist content. While Thatcher has engaged in some privatization, the percentage of government spending and taxation to GNP has increased over the course of her regime, and monetary inflation has now led to price inflation. Basic discontent, then, has risen, and the increase in local tax levels has come as the vital last straw. It seems to me that a minimum criterion for a regime receiving the accolade of ‘pro-free-market’ would require it to cut total spending, cut overall tax rates, and revenues, and put a stop to its own inflationary creation of money.”

As far as today’s Tories are concerned, the mealy-mouthed and largely nonexistent Thatcherite “revolution” is but a distant memory – and, if we count the number of Tory tributes to her legacy while she was still alive, one best forgotten. The Conservative Party is in the process of being “modernized,” i.e. turned into the “right”-wing of the British social democracy. Which brings us back to Tony Blair, the embodiments of Britain’s right-wing social democrats – and Thatcher’s true heir and legatee.

Thatcher’s effect on the British right seems, in retrospect, to have been minimal: she wanted to bring off a “free market” revolution in the British welfare state, but instead wound up merely speeding the country down the road to serfdom. Paradoxically, where she had her greatest effect was on the Labor Party: her greatest success was cementing the “Atlanticist” foreign policy consensus presently shared by all the mainstream parties.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I am speaking at American University on April 16. The event is a debate on the subject of gay marriage, with author and columnist Jonathan Rauch speaking in the affirmative and me opposing. It’s open to the public. That’s Tuesday, April 16, at 8:00 pm, in the Mary Graydon Center, Rooms 4 & 5.

I’m having great fun on Twitter these days, and I urge you to join me on this wonderfully interactive site: you can do so by going here.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), here.

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