Thirty Years On …

It is the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street. How are we to take stock of her effect on liberty? Such a question is bound to whip up controversy whenever it is asked in Britain.

These two videos catch some of the issues surrounding Thatcherism and liberty. They were part of a series called ‘Voices of Liberty’ recorded and devised by David Botsford in 1991.

First, Kenneth Minogue talks about the connection between the free market and individual freedom:

In the second, David Marquand points out some of the paradoxes in Thatcherism.


What I find interesting about this issue is the peculiar relationship between market freedom and civil liberties, especially in the last 30 years. The fear, held alike by left and right, was that economic individualism would lead to social disorder. Governments of all hues have become more authoritarian since 1979. Civil liberties have suffered and surveillance has grown. It as if we are not fully trusted with our new-found freedoms. We need to be monitored and cajoled towards the good. Far from loosening its grip on political, economic and social life central government has become far more controlling.

The very attempt to cut back the state and empower the individual had to be accomplished by a stronger state. It became even more meddlesome. At the same time there was not much appetite for civil liberties. Attitudes towards political protest and whistle-blowing hardened without many tears being shed on the Conservative backbenches. State power—so much hated by the New Right when in opposition—was seized and used to root out socialism and other relics of the past. Having seized that power, however, politicians were reluctant to hand it back.

The New Labour government shared Thatcher economic vision, but was concerned to mop up the malign consequences of individualism, which it believed had run out of control and was destroying communities. The result has been greater nannying. It appears to me sometimes that ministers believe that if they did not keep a close eye on things the whole of civil society would collapse into anarchy. Blair said that people were sick of the 1960s consensus on social freedoms. The disciplines and restraints swept away in successive social and economic revolutions had to be restored by the state. In Thatcherite terms, it was restoring Victorian values. In Blairite language, it was all about respect.

So, individuals needed greater regulation, but markets did not. The effects of economic liberalisation on politics have been far from satisfactory. Any passion for civil liberties on the part of the left and the right drained away in the face of Mrs T’s revolution. Throughout recent British history versions of individualism and collectivism have been experimented with—and neither went to the extreme. Both were tempered by traditions of civil liberty and by a certain British contempt for the intrusions of power.

By the late 1970s these instincts had gone to sleep—at least as far as Westminster politics went. So what we got was an economic revolution conducted without much regard for history. Thatcher and Blair shared a belief that they were leading the country into unchartered territory; both had a hazy knowledge of history. Both were revolutionaries, liberated as they saw it from the past. There were no taboos which could not be broken, and old traditions were not guides or warnings but annoying distractions.

What we have got since 1979 has been a peculiar mix of extreme economic freedom and a more meddlesome government. The worst of both worlds.


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