Mrs Thatcher: good for our souls as well as our wallets?

Several Thatcheristes have been putting the record straight: that she didn’t “destroy” the unions but democratised them; that she wasn’t a wrecker of manufacturing; that she closed fewer mines and shipyards than Labour had before her. But we have had more challenging arguments, too. They hinge on her failure to crush the welfare state, or the left-liberal elite. That was part of her failure to win hearts…

Martin Durkin, naturally, went out on his delicious Channel 4 limb to argue that Mrs Thatcher was a working class radical. He claims she came from the working class and liberated it and was doing fine with her people’s capitalism until the Tory Toffs ganged up on her: all that is worth saying, so far as it goes. Quite how a lower middle class shopkeeper’s daughter was working class, escapes me. And were the slightly wet Tory defenestrators who brought us John Major really a Toff counter-revolution? Come to that, is it remotely true, as Mr Durkin asserts, that the middling fudge of corporatism liked the EU because it allowed socialism in through the back door? Anyway, it is surely true that Mrs T wasn’t a conventional Tory of her day: from broadly the social background of a Heath, she had far more fight in her. And whilst I like Mr Durkin’s take that she was an insurgent liberationist, it misses the way Thatcherism missed a big part of our relations with government. .

At my own base, the Social Affairs Unit, Christie Davies argues that Mrs Thatcher defeated industrial socialism, and helped defeat international socialism, but he stresses that she did not hit state welfarism, because she was not right-wing enough. He’s right, of course, though not very helpful in plotting the next steps.

Tim Montgomerie in The Times identifies much the same problem, does it in rich terms, and hints at a solution, but in a muddled way.

Tim Montgomerie argues that we miss out the value of Gramscian thinking at our peril: that the power of the left is cultural as much as it is economic. I think he’s dead right about this, and we can come back to this bit of his argument.

But there is a crucial bit of the Montgomerie case which may well be flawed. He makes a slightly slippery argument for a new form of Thatcherism:

If the Right is to win the 21st century it needs a social as well as an economic agenda. Economic Thatcherism revived Britain’s job and wealth creators. We now need a social Thatcherism to revive the sense that we are neighbours and parents with responsibilities to the people who do not prosper in free-market economies.

One problem with this argument is that it implies that we need people to develop or rediscover a larger sense of social purpose, and another is that there might be a Thatcherite way of doing so. But do we need a wider sense of purpose, and can Thatcherism help us find it? I think the answer is no, and a possible yes.

The British people are already willingly pay more taxes than they should, and probably spend far too much on welfare. The problem – if it is one – is that they seem to prefer to be forced into sub-contracting their social concern rather than acting on it for themselves in a hands-on way. I am pretty sure that welfare reform needs to appeal to people’s wallets, but mustn’t involve a large increase in go-gooding.

The trick to welfare reform will be to let people be lazy in their good-natured way, and to give them an understanding that they are looking after themselves, and doing good, and not doing harm. This last aim is crucial: people know that the present state arrangements do many unfortunates much harm.

Mrs Thatcher’s role in this can be significant, but not quite in Tim Montgomerie’s terms. In his own thesis, Mrs T failed to get across that she was a social animal. Oddly, one  might say she was a feeble and incoherent exponent of the Big Society. She thought that free people with money in their pockets would look after themselves and then their slightly wider world and then – in some vague way – take care of much bigger social issues. Tim Montgomerie hints that she thought philanthropy was the answer. So far as  I know, she was not a proponent of the mutualism which Blue Labour and Red Tory both like.

I think there is a way through these problems and it begins with the idea that one should privatise almost every aspect of welfare, from education, though health, to pensions. Privatisation can take two forms. First, the bricks and mortar and provision of services can be de-nationalised. And then, the means of payment for services can follow. The latter is infinitely harder than the former because it involves complex (and probably low profit) financial institutions and it raises issues of funding the feckless or unfortunate.

One could never reduce the state’s role to zero: in welfare as in commerce, at some point the state will be holding the ring and acting as guarantor, and perhaps as enforcer of a degree of compulsion. But the trajectory is not half as difficult or frightening as the rock-solid liberal left consensus against it might suppose.

I think Martin Durkin’s liberated working class will like privatised welfare and that my kind of case answers Mr Christie’s complaint about Mrs Thatcher’s welfare lacunae.

My privatised welfare ideas are not exactly Thatcherite, in that she balked at those sorts of reforms and also in that they are distinctly post-Victorian whilst her ideas seem at least that old. Clearly, on the other hand, privatised welfare is Thatcherite in that it is dry, not wet. It is much more Salisbury than Macmillan. It stresses the merit of standing on one’s own feet and making sure that any helping hand does not develop into the embrace of dependency. It depends on the bracing idea that in an affluent, free society, few people need or enjoy welfare – but that systems can be devised to make it beneficial.

It is impossible to know where Mr Cameron stands on such matters: he can be read in almost every possible way. I suspect that the middle ground of politics now is a sort of holding operation: we are sliding towards privatisation of social services, and some of those who most want such policies believe they must be very cautious in saying so. When Mr Cameron says the NHS is safe with him, he may merely be suggesting that serious reform is multi-generational, rather than expressing devotion to current models.

I am not at all sure that it is important to have an intellectual argument about why the right can be humane as well as realistic and tough. It is an argument I love engaging in, and do my best to promote. But progress will probably happen anyway.

And yet it is true and well worth saying that there is a mystery about Thatcherism: it swept all before it, and changed very little culturally. I think people still feel that Mrs Thatcher sorted out our wallets but messed up our souls. I think, of course, that in her clumsy, folksy, nannyish way, this industrial chemist knew our souls perfectly well and was good for them, and will prove better still when we take her de-nationalisation much further than she dared or maybe even desired.








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Publication date

15 April 2013