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Let Margaret Thatcher Go

18/04/2013 12:37 BST | Updated 18/06/2013 10:12 BST

Winston Churchill won a war, the Economist tells us, but he was never great enough to get an -ism named for him. Thus, apparently, Margaret Thatcher was a greater Prime Minister than Churchill - for this week, at least. It says something about the mood on the Right, both in terms of mourning and in the assessment of the present administration's talent and likely prospects, that the Lion's Roar has temporarily been relegated to second best. In the same week, the New Statesman has run a piece about Thatcher from which you might conclude that she was uniquely responsible for the all Britain's ills from 1979 to the present day. This week, everyone believes in the hero theory of history. There are no great or pivotal moments, only great people moving the inert masses by force of personality.

Leave aside for a moment Thatcher's social conservatism - the busybodyish Orwellian desire to get into everyone's bedroom and bowdlerize the business of teaching children about sexuality - not because it was not obnoxious, but because it was obviously so. That face of Thatcherism was, and is understood by reasonable and compassionate people to have been, grim and grey and ugly. Look instead at the nation and at what she wanted it to be.

Margaret Thatcher inherited a country in transition. The British Empire was still a considerable entity well into the 20th Century. Canadian foreign policy was controlled from London until after the First World War. India became independent in 1947. The last administrative ties between Westminster and the Australian government were severed by the Australia Act in 1987, under Thatcher herself. At the same time, changes in the makeup of the labour force, the emancipation and enfranchisement of women, the increasing use of telecommunications, robots and computers, and the beginnings of globalisation entailed a shift in the economic and social structure of the country. In the span of a human lifetime, and well within the collective memory, Britain went from a stable Imperial power ruling an appreciable fraction of the Earth's surface to being a tumultuous patchwork which was at least superficially in decline. Thatcher rejected the idea that the function of the government was purely to manage that decline. She put forward a vision of the country as a leader in the world, a powerhouse still, and at the same time offered a notion of Britain as a place of personal responsibility rather than faceless collective nannying. Her infamous statement - "there is no such thing as society" - is less absurd when quoted in full: "They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbour."

Perhaps that final phrase is open to too much interpretation, but I see a schoolmarmish, Methodist insistence - Thatcher's father, Alfred Roberts, was a Methodist preacher - on an obligation to good work in the tradition of Kingdomtide, the thirteen week season before Advent during which the Methodist church emphasizes alleviating the suffering of the poor. It is a personal duty for each individual, not something which can be devolved upon the state. Like David Cameron today, Thatcher expected private individuals to step into the void left by the retreat of government, but somehow that nuance went astray (somehow it always does) and the result was a repugnant greed-fest with precious little in the way of a culture of charity - although in retrospect it looks oddly bashful when set against today. The 80s money men would have loved to create such a fatuous instrument as the complicitly blind-eyed market in duff CDOs, but they lacked either the gall or the imagination. I wonder if they were still restrained, somehow, by the style of business from which capitalism evolved, the Protestant work ethic which attributed success in business to the favour of God. I don't mean that all those yuppies and traders believed in God, just that they were carrying the last lingering notion of how to do money bequeathed to them by those who did, who understood that the financial system was not simply a cow to be milked for profit but also a beast which must be fed with value.

It seems to me from this distance that Thatcher's vision was a harmonious Christian Britain with a withered administrative state apparatus and powerful, stewardly middle and upper classes composed of nuclear families intent on continuing the Victorian project of uplifting mankind, a working class respectful and striving, seeking to earn their way to a better station. It was almost a neo-Victorian rendering of the American Dream, a place where diligent work made dignified but not excessive prosperity for the common man. If she could have brought it about, the result would have been very different from what actually happened - but of course, that country never existed, and never could have. She couldn't bring herself to acknowledge the existence of various kinds of people who did not fit with it, but they existed all the same, and they too had needs and rights and hopes and families. Perhaps her dreamworld was an idealised picture of Grantham, the Lincolnshire town where she grew up: a Conservative stronghold with a powerful Christian presence, which has a proud history of military industry and service, and which incidentally was apparently the second place in the world - after London - to recruit women to serve as police officers. Or perhaps Thatcher's vision was Blake's green and pleasant land made fit for business in the modern world.

Be that as it may, this is her original sin: not the handouts to big business or the godmothering of a culture of financial industry gambling - with other people's money, of course - which still afflicts us today, but the inability to compromise the dream for the sake of the human beings who must live with it. The flashpoints of her time, from the Poll Tax to Section 28 and the miners' strikes, derived from the encounter of her vision with the reality of people crushed and marginalised by the method or the consequences of its implementation. She made Britain into a Procrustean Bed. It's a common failing among visionaries of any stripe, a conviction that present bad is a path to future good, and it ignores the truth that we never really reach the goal of any political project. The end doesn't justify anything, because all we ever live with is the means. The Economist acknowledges, almost in passing, that under Thatcher the Conservative party went from being a national force to the party of the wealthy south, but doesn't find the time to examine why. The simple answer is "pain".

The claim made on Thatcher's behalf is that this was necessary pain, that it was pain needed to restore the fabric of the nation. The same argument is made now regarding the new austerity, with the same gaping inability to notice that that fabric is fraying because of, not in spite of, the cuts to local institutions which are the lifeline many need to get ahead - and if they can't get their bank accounts into the black, they can't spend. The chief economist of the IMF - hardly a tax and spend organisation - has criticised this government's strict adherence to austerity. The fund has also lowered Britain's forecasted growth by more than any other advanced economy. Necessary pain starts to look like self-harm.

David Cameron's invocation of Thatcherism as a policy for the present is the thing I find most bizarre, because - aside from its debatable success and its undeniable divisiveness - purely economic Thatcherism is incomplete. You can't have a positive Thatcherite vision without the subtext of Methodism, the sense of self-restraint and above all of obligation. And while politicians love to talk about duty, they don't seem to be able to create a sense of it by loosening regulation. Thatcher herself favoured a quotation from Abraham Lincoln which includes a line which explains why - though Dan Ariely might be able to say it more clearly. The City of London chooses not to think about this favoured Thatcher mantra: "You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift." Our financial industry, wedded to excess and titanic personal wealth, prefers the next part: "You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer." As with the society speech, so here: the meaning is cut in half by a petulant desire to decouple profit and obligation. Of course: we wouldn't need all that frustrating regulation if the financial industry could be trusted to behave responsibly and take on a role of stewardship of the flow of capital to where it's needed rather than creating ever more absurd engines for the extraction of fool's gold profits. We wouldn't need a social safety net if people of means would look after their less fortunate or able neighbours, if they would observe a perpetual Kingdomtide. We wouldn't need higher tax rates if large companies actually paid any tax. Thatcherism would work fine if people were all like Margaret Thatcher herself, if they felt that duty to look after their neighbour. But the Big Society somehow isn't nearly big enough to take on the safety net functions of the state - probably because to do so it would require a widespread culture of personal charity to the point of personal sacrifice - so instead Thatcherism - as its primary beneficiaries interpret it - creates the Greed Is Good ethos and its most recent and purest expression in the sub-prime fiasco, and misery for anyone who isn't inured by wealth to global economic crisis. If we need an -ism at all today, we need one which can flex and learn from the world to avoid the ghastly injuries the small-minded moralistic side of Thatcher's government inflicted, which grasps the reality of life in the poor parts of Britain as well as the rich, and which expresses some version of that lingering Methodist acknowledgement of, yes, society, in a way which transcends religion, culture, and politics. We don't need to chase a nostalgic rendering of Britain as it never was and never can be: we need instead an understand of who we really are and what a happy, prosperous, just nation might look like.

Baroness Thatcher was buried yesterday. She was once Prime Minister, and she did the job she was elected to do as best she knew how. She expressed something which mattered greatly to many, offended profoundly against many others, and shaped to some extent the world in which we live. She was of her time, her ideas bear the stamp of her time, and her time is over. Let the Iron Lady go down into the ground, and move on.