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The socialist legacy of Margaret Thatcher

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margaret_thatcher_iron_ohp_postcard-p239145453810465432z85wg_400Judging by the reactions to her death, Margaret Thatcher has proved to be as divisive in her death as she was in her life. Social networking sites were full of some predictably vile abuse, conjured up in the dark recesses of some extremely tasteless minds. Then there was the equally predictable adulation by those who seemed to worship the ground she trod on.

To those on the left, she was a right-wing pariah, the scourge of their socialist utopia defeating both the unions at home and the commies abroad. To the right, she was a beacon of light for exactly the same reasons. However, I believe that neither of these depictions is particularly accurate. Whilst recognising her as a great leader, I believe that her legacy lies in a different direction than the one that is generally understood.

It is said that she stood up to socialism and together with Ronald Regan, sounded the death-knell for the Soviet Union. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it seems to me that it was only one particular type of socialism that she stood against: economic socialism – the type that would nationalise air, happiness and the moon if it could. Yet at the same time as she closed the door firmly on this type of socialism, she opened another door and allowed a far more cunning form of socialism to sneak in.

The main weakness in her worldview, I believe, was that she viewed moral issues in the same way as she viewed economics. Economically, she believed passionately in the free market, having been influenced by the likes of Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. She believed that government should get out of people’s lives and let them live and work without hindrance (not that she actually achieved this – the state continued to grow under her watch, just as it did in America under the equally robust free-market advocate, Ronald Regan). However, she seems to have taken this sound economic principle – that governments should not interfere with peoples’ lives – and applied it to the issue of morality.

For instance, by the time she became Prime Minister, divorce rates had been growing at a phenomenal rate since the Divorce Reform Act was passed ten years before. Yet during her 11 years in power, Mrs Thatcher’s government did not just fail to reverse the legislation that had effectively introduced the concept of “no-fault” divorce, they actually went further making divorce even easier in the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984. And so divorce continued to rise on her watch and families continued to disintegrate.

Then there is the issue of abortion. In the year before she came to power 141,558 abortions were performed in England and Wales, but by the time she resigned the figure had risen to 186,912. [1]  Not once during her tenure did her government attempt to reverse this carnage, which was perhaps unsurprising, considering she had voted in favour of the Abortion Act 1967, the act which had legalized abortions in the UK.

Her government also attempted to relax Sunday trading laws, but were defeated in Parliament thanks to a curious mix of conservatives and left-wing union types, both of whom believed that this legislation would destroy family life.

None of these policies can be described as conservative, and they are certainly not Christian principles. They are completely in accordance with secular free-market libertarianism, which would think it absurd to restrict decisions on divorce, child bearing and trading, but they are completely at odds with biblical free-market libertarianism, which insists on adherence to the 10 commandments as a prerequisite to a truly free market. The irony of these policies should not be missed either. Easy divorce, toleration of abortion and attempting to do away with the day of rest are the kinds of things that socialist governments do the world over.

In other words, despite her reputation, Margaret Thatcher was not especially conservative and she certainly didn’t operate from any biblical principles. She was in many ways a secular free-market liberal, who believed that the market itself could regulate behaviour.

This “free-market amorality” had two profound effects. Firstly, it meant that the UK, whilst generally becoming more economically prosperous than during the socialistic 1970s, at the same time became far more morally impoverished, much the same as America at the same time. The second effect – and this is crucial to understanding her legacy – was that those in opposition sat up, took notice and saw how they might use this to their advantage.

Throughout the 1980s, the British Labour Party was a decrepit, unelectable outfit, obsessed with nationalization and closely linked in the minds of millions of voters with the Soviet Union. Yet the cleverer people within that party began to see in Thatcherism a golden opportunity not only to get back into power, but to change society beyond all recognition once they were there.

What they saw was this: if you stopped making nationalization your battlefront, as the old socialism had always done, and accepted privatization and economic liberalism, you would then be free to make changes to the moral and social fabric of society without anyone much caring. As long as you didn’t sound as if you wanted to turn the country into the Soviet Union or that you desired nothing better than to whack the middle classes in their pockets, you could radically socially engineer the nation and people either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care. You no longer needed to force anything and everything into state ownership in order to create a socialist country: you could do it much better by leaving the issue of state ownership well alone.

And so that’s just what they did. Thatcherism paved the way for what came after it: New Labour – the most ethically socialist government ever seen in the United Kingdom. They abandoned their previously dogmatic call for everything to be nationalized, and then set about bringing in the most anti-Christian laws and regulations the UK had seen for hundreds of years. Thatcherism killed off the old, past-its-sell-by-date form of socialism, only to grant a bunch of clever Marxists the vehicle with which to launch a slicker, shinier form of socialism aimed at destroying the last remnant of Christianity from these shores. Does that sound at all familiar in the US?

Many commentators have recognized the part that Thatcherism played in helping the opposition become electable again, but what many of them fail to grasp is that this was not the socialists kowtowing to the conservatives; rather it was the socialists, repackaging their product and using Thatcherism to further their own agenda. And boy did they succeed! We are now just two decades down the line from the end of the Thatcher reign, and all three main political parties in the UK share this in common: none of them is calling for the nationalization of anything, and yet all of them are doing their level best to destroy the last vestiges of Christian Britain.

What are the lessons for us in all this? I believe that there are three very important lessons:

  1. Christians can get very taken in by certain politicians and certain policies just because of who they are not and what they are not. It can be tempting to love someone like Margaret Thatcher simply because she wasn’t Leonid Brezhnev or one of the Soviet puppets on the opposition side. It can be easy to love her free market economics because it is evidently superior to the stifling, poverty-inducing policies advocated by her statist opponents. But without wishing to detract from the good that she did, we must always remember that hers was a secular answer and not a biblical one.
  2. Nations can only be truly free if they adhere to the moral law of God. By largely ignoring God’s laws, Margaret Thatcher ultimately produced neither a free market nor a free society. Easier divorce laws meant that families continued to disintegrate, communities followed suit and ultimately society as a whole became fragmented, so that just over two decades after she left office, government is bigger than ever, the welfare state is enormous and the state now regulates commerce and the everyday lives of the British people on a scale never seen before.
  3. We must beware of “Godless conservatism” – the type that tries to fix things by the power of the market or tradition or patriotism. Thatcherism was an attempt to defeat socialism by purely secular means, and though it thankfully headed off one type of socialism, it created the conditions for another form of this many-headed hydra to spring into existence. I’m certainly not saying that it is wrong to vote for people like Margaret Thatcher – only that Christian ought to treat such voting as purely pragmatic in order to head off something far worse. Secular conservatism is not the answer, it is not what Christians ought to put their hopes in, and it will always end up bringing in some new tyranny. As George Washington is reputed to have said: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” 
  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/127785/Commentary1.pdf[]
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