By Lawrence W. Reed
This autumn will mark 30 years since Margaret Thatcher departed 10 Downing Street as the first woman and longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. What an amazing tenure it was!
A “Do-It-Yourself” Vision
In 1979, the Iron Lady assumed the premiership of a country riven with labor strife, racked by stagflation and run down by decades of nanny government. Britain struggled on all fronts as the sick man of Europe. For the most part, Thatcher didn’t propose to fix big problems through small tweaks as other cowardly or unprincipled politicians were suggesting. She set about, in her words, to “roll back the frontiers of the state.” She wanted to reinvigorate the country by restoring a culture of entrepreneurship and respect for private property. She reminded the nation of these objectives during her second of three terms when she declared,
I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society—from a give-it-to-me, to a do-it-yourself nation. A get-up-and-go, instead of a sit-back-and-wait-for-it Britain.
A woman of convictions, she thought the unprincipled in government deserved to take a fall because they were too afraid to take a stand. She was more interested in doing what she thought was right than what was politically palatable, as evidenced in this well-known remark: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects.”
At a policy meeting once, she famously pulled out a copy of F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty from her handbag, slammed it down on the table and declared, “This is what we believe!” On another occasion, she observed that
Marxists get up early in the morning to further their cause. We must get up even earlier to defend our freedom.
She defied conventional wisdom about the “glass ceiling” women in British politics faced. And she understood the issues that ordinary people faced, noting in a 1971 interview that “I started life with two great advantages: no money, and good parents.”
Deregulation and Progress
Painfully at first, her policies wrenched the country from its doldrums to a new era of progress and confidence. Her eleven years in Britain’s top job proved that a vigorous program of privatization, deregulation, and tax reduction is an effective antidote for disastrous collectivism. She was increasingly skeptical of the European Union, partly because of its penchant for bureaucracy and regulation and partly because of its effort to homogenize the features that made each country special.
Thatcher died in 2013 but had she lived another seven years, she would likely be cheering Brexit, which finally happened last month. She told the House of Commons in 1991, “Our sovereignty does not come from Brussels—it is ours by right and by heritage.” In her 2002 book, Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World she states:
“Europe” in anything other than the geographical sense is a wholly artificial construct. It makes no sense at all to lump together Beethoven and Debussy, Voltaire and Burke, Vermeer and Picasso, Notre Dame and St. Paul’s, boiled beef and bouillabaisse, and portray them as elements of a “European” musical, philosophical, artistic, architectural or gastronomic reality. If Europe charms us, as it has so often charmed me, it is precisely because of its contrasts and contradictions, not its coherence and continuity.
She wasn’t perfect, of course, and she compromised where she felt she had to. But she was right about the big picture, especially the evils of socialism and the virtues of freedom. As I wrote in this 2013 tribute at the time of her passing, titled “Ugliness from Ugly Ideas”:
“[S]ocialists despised her because she stood up to them, questioned their false compassion, and dared to expose statism as the senseless, dehumanizing cult that it is. She rhetorically ripped the velvet glove from the iron fist and spoke of welfare-state socialism as a wolf in sheep’s clothes. Those are things state worshipers cannot abide.”
As this presidential election year in America unfolds, I can’t help but wonder what Margaret Thatcher would think of our politicians and their promises. No doubt she would decry Washington’s bad, bipartisan habits of spending and debt. I think, however, she would reserve special disdain for those vote-buying demagogues who traffic in class warfare and socialism of any stripe. I can easily see her scolding Bernie Sanders in terms like,
We already tried what you’re advocating and it failed miserably. Grow up, get a real job for a change and learn something from history and economics!
Her Thoughts on Socialism
No need to take my word for it, though. I offer here some of Margaret Thatcher’s most incisive remarks about the socialism some Americans seem attracted to these days. They stretch across decades of her public life:
- “It is good to recall how our freedom has been gained in this country—not by great abstract campaigns but through the objections of ordinary men and women to having their money taken from them by the State. In the early days, people banded together and said to the then Government, ‘You shall not take our money before you have redressed our grievances.’ It was their money, their wealth, which was the source of their independence against the Government.”
- “The philosophical reason for which we are against nationalization and for private enterprise is because we believe that economic progress comes from the inventiveness, ability, determination and the pioneering spirit of extraordinary men and women. If they cannot exercise that spirit here, they will go away to another free enterprise country which will then make more economic progress than we do. We ought, in fact, to be encouraging small firms and small companies, because the extent to which innovation comes through these companies is tremendous.”
- “I was attacked for fighting a rearguard action in defense of ‘middle-class interests.’…Well, if ‘middle class values’ include the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives and rewards for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the State and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property, then they are certainly what I am trying to defend. This is not a fight for ‘privilege’; it is a fight for freedom—freedom for every citizen.”
- “Our challenge is to create the kind of economic background which enables private initiative and private enterprise to flourish for the benefit of the consumer, employee, the pensioner, and society as a whole…I believe we should judge people on merit and not on background. I believe the person who is prepared to work hardest should get the greatest rewards and keep them after tax. That we should back the workers and not the shirkers: that it is not only permissible but praiseworthy to want to benefit your own family by your own efforts.”
- “I place a profound belief—indeed a fervent faith—in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence. On these is founded the whole case for the free society, for the assertion that human progress is best achieved by offering the freest possible scope for the development of individual talents, qualified only by a respect for the qualities and the freedom of others…For many years there has been a subtle erosion of the essential virtues of the free society. Self-reliance has been sneered at as if it were an absurd suburban pretention. Thrift has been denigrated as if it were greed. The desire of parents to choose and to struggle for what they themselves regarded as the best possible education for their children has been scorned.”
- “I do not believe, in spite of all this, that the people of this country have abandoned their faith in the qualities and characteristics which made them a great people. Not a bit of it. We are still the same people. All that has happened is that we have temporarily lost confidence in our own strength. We have lost sight of the banners. The trumpets have given an uncertain sound. It is our duty, our purpose, to raise those banners high, so that all can see them, to sound the trumpets clearly and boldly so that all can hear them. Then we shall not have to convert people to our principles. They will simply rally to those which truly are their own.”
- “I shall never stop fighting. I mean this country to survive, to prosper and to be free…I haven’t fought the destructive forces of socialism for more than twenty years in order to stop now, when the critical phase of the struggle is upon us.”
- “What are the lessons then that we’ve learned from the last thirty years? First, that the pursuit of equality itself is a mirage. What’s more desirable and more practicable than the pursuit of equality is the pursuit of equality of opportunity. And opportunity means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal and the freedom to be different. One of the reasons that we value individuals is not because they’re all the same, but because they’re all different. I believe you have a saying in the Middle West: ‘Don’t cut down the tall poppies. Let them rather grow tall.’ I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so. Because we must build a society in which each citizen can develop his full potential, both for his own benefit and for the community as a whole, a society in which originality, skill, energy and thrift are rewarded, in which we encourage rather than restrict the variety and richness of human nature.”
- “Let me give you my vision. A man’s right to work as he will to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master; these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our others depend.”
- “Some socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals. We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else, however much the socialists may pretend otherwise. We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal but to us every human being is equally important.”
- “The socialists tell us that there are massive profits in a particular industry and they should not go to the shareholders—but that the public should reap the benefits. Benefits? What benefits? When you take into public ownership a profitable industry, the profits soon disappear. The goose that laid the golden eggs goes broody. State geese are not great layers. The steel industry was nationalized some years ago in the public interest—yet the only interest now left to the public is in witnessing the depressing spectacle of their money going down the drain at a rate of a million pounds a day.”
- “There are others who warn not only of the threat from without, but of something more insidious, not readily perceived, not always deliberate, something that is happening here at home. What are they pointing to? They are pointing to the steady and remorseless expansion of the socialist State. Now none of us would claim that the majority of socialists are inspired by other than humanitarian and well-meaning ideals. At the same time few would, I think, deny today that they have made a monster that they can’t control. Increasingly, inexorably, the State the socialists have created is becoming more random in the economic and social justice it seeks to dispense, more suffocating in its effect on human aspirations and initiative, more politically selective in its defense of the rights of its citizens, more gargantuan in its appetite—and more disastrously incompetent in its performance. Above all, it poses a growing threat, however unintentional, to the freedom of this country, for there is no freedom where the State totally controls the economy. Personal freedom and economic freedom are indivisible. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t lose one without losing the other.”
- “One of our principal and continuing priorities when we are returned to office will be to restore the freedoms which the Socialists have usurped. Let them learn that it is not a function of the State to possess as much as possible. It is not a function of the State to grab as much as it can get away with. It is not a function of the State to act as ring-master, to crack the whip, dictate the load which all of us must carry or say how high we may climb. It is not a function of the State to ensure that no-one climbs higher than anyone else. All that is the philosophy of socialism. We reject it utterly for, however well-intended, it leads in one direction only: to the erosion and finally the destruction of the democratic way of life.”
- “There is no such thing as ‘safe’ socialism. If it’s safe, it’s not socialism. And if it’s socialism, it’s not safe. The signposts of socialism point downhill to less freedom, less prosperity, downhill to more muddle, more failure. If we follow them to their destination, they will lead this nation into bankruptcy.”
- “The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior. It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility, and his capacity to choose. Surely this is infinitely preferable to the socialist-statist philosophy which sets up a centralized economic system to which the individual must conform, which subjugates him, directs him and denies him the right to free choice. Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.”
- “In our philosophy the purpose of the life of the individual is not to be the servant of the State and its objectives, but to make the best of his talents and qualities. The sense of being self-reliant, of playing a role within the family, of owning one’s own property, of paying one’s way, are all part of the spiritual ballast which maintains responsible citizenship, and provides the solid foundation from which people look around to see what more they might do, for others and for themselves. That is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the State is responsible for everything, and no-one is responsible for the State.”
- “Once you give people the idea that all this can be done by the State, and that it is somehow second-best or even degrading to leave it to private people…then you will begin to deprive human beings of one of the essential ingredients of humanity—personal moral responsibility. You will in effect dry up in them the milk of human kindness. If you allow people to hand over to the State all their personal responsibility, the time will come—indeed it is close at hand—when what the taxpayer is willing to provide for the good of humanity will be seen to be far less than what the individual used to be willing to give from love of his neighbour. So do not be tempted to identify virtue with collectivism. I wonder whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?”
- “Popular capitalism, which is the economic expression of liberty, is proving a much more attractive means for diffusing power in our society. Socialists cry “Power to the people,” and raise the clenched fist as they say it. We all know what they really mean—power over people, power to the State. To us Conservatives, popular capitalism means what it says: power through ownership to the man and woman in the street, given confidently with an open hand.”
- “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘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. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbor and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations. 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 around and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
- “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people. We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage; we are renewing it and carrying it forward.”
Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also author of Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism.