Thatcher a Month on - Time For Some Sober Reflection?

30/05/2013 14:22 BST | Updated 15/04/2015 18:59 BST


Mrs Thatcher was not universally adored and the public ceremony she was accorded unsurprisingly riled the many Britons who did not prosper during her time in office. For them the tide of effusive public tributes were indulgent partisan displays of hero worship. Not a representative expression of pubic opinion. For them the subjective and partial masqueraded as the objective and universal.

The week felt like an age as all other news was relegated to second billing. The sense of disproportion was palpable. And enhanced further by the decision to put the cost of the service at behest of the tax payer - a move wholly inconsistent with the current zeitgeist of austerity which we are relentlessly told is unavoidable and necessary.

The incongruity pointed logically to the question of whether, aside from adulation and loss, were there any other concerns that compelled decisions to recall parliament, postpone PMQ's? Or more crudely, were there any expedient gains to be made from a prolonged spectacle? Put simply, yes. The effect was to create a huge distraction for the government,

And a perverse inversion seemed to take hold, of the sensibilities which usually surround mourning, respect, and sensitivity not to intrude upon the privacy of those grieving. We had the opposite - the private grief of friends, relatives, admirers and sycophants, being thrust upon the public.

A distinct lack of balance was apparent with hyperbolic eulogies given top billing. The most sublime and ridiculous tribute was made by Lord Saatchi. Without any hint of irony, he gushed,

"Everyone wants to be immortal. Few are. Mrs. Thatcher is. Why? Because her values are timeless, eternal"

Charisma often inspires strong feelings, negative and positive. It can move people to put visceral impulses before sober judgment, and when you add this variable to a mixture of anguish, sorrow, retribution, bitterness, it is less likely that assessments of provenance will filter through.

So one month on, let us consider what exactly were her values, and what exactly did she stand for?

Well, she was a firm believer in the doctrine of laissez faire. It is said to derive from the answer Jean-Baptiste Colbert, King Louis XIV's controller of finance, received when he asked industrialists what government could do to help business. Roughly translated as "allow to do", laissez faire was promulgated by the Physiocrats, a group of economists in 18th Century France.

In Britain, laissez faire was integrated within classical economics by Adam Smith during the 19th century, and it's economic usage popularised by John Stuart Mill. Laissez faire placed an absolute priority on the autonomy of economic life. With a reverential zeal, the freedom and initiative of the individual to pursue their own, selfish, lawful, goals was elevated to an almost sacred status.

The role of Government was to maintain law, order and security, to enforce contracts, to facilitate conditions, not dictate outcomes. Economic interference was strictly taboo.

Gradually, laissez faire became a political as well as economic ideology, an abstract model, composed of ideals and assumptions, an existential ontology. The individual pursuing their own ends would achieve the best results for the society of which they were a part.

In the domino run of individual rights, economic pieces were first to fall, and thus vital in the evolution of democracy. But the codification of property rights also protected the interests of those who had already accumulated privilege and resources by unmeritorious means.

And so inequality was built in from the start.

Markets have certainly proved an effective way of organising the production and distribution of goods. Their occurrence has coincided with some of the highest living standards in human history. But markets have their limitations, and when sought as ends in themselves can have destructive effects.

Such was Thatcher's enthusiasm for free markets, the distinction between markets as a tool and as a way of life became blurred. Markets don't just allocate resources, they give expression to certain values. And if not balanced with other concerns, the commodification, monetisation of everything, makes money matter more, and then market values can enter into areas of our lives where they may not be conducive to human flourishing.

Classical liberal economic theory is built upon some misplaced assumptions. Outcomes, the success of certain social groups, and the hierarchy it produces, is justified in terms of natural selection, 'survival of the fittest'. The 'fittest' - those most suited, best adapted, to compete in the 'natural conflict' between social groups.

There was a natural order, and the free market was the best, most just way at which this order could be arrived. But the application of Darwinian theory to economic hierarchy is a misappropriation. In this context, it is used to obscure processes, not understand them. It is common practice in social and political theory to invoke the life sciences cloak certain notions with a sense of gravitas. And seduce the naive.

These concepts - free markets, individualism, survival of the fittest and perpetual wealth creation - are the DNA of Thatcher's philosophy, her metaphysical signature if you will. Perhaps there was no better embodiment of Thatcherite values than the aggressive, insatiable ethos of wealth creation that precipitated the financial crisis. And although there remain staunch advocates, the popular legitimacy of this type of voracious, unbridled capitalism has expired.

There was much discussion of legacy in the weeks after Thatcher died. And the historical retrospection brought into relief just how much Britain has changed.

Of course, no one is immortal. Mortality, our transience, is something that compels us to focus attentions on the present. Thatcher's passing came as a timely reminder of how far we have come. I don't sense people want to go back .