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Being besotted of Thatcher is a new form of the British disease

As the archives of the early Thatcher government are released under the UK's 30 year rule, a wave of nostalgia for her is feeding into a right-wing attack on Britain's new coalition. How wrong can you get?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
3 January 2011

Jackie Ashley in the Guardian predicts a new cult of Thatcher as right-wing conservatives assault Cameron's supposed liberal-leaning concessions on Europe and human rights, a cult that will be reinforced annually as the archives are opened under the thirty years rule.

Perhaps she had noticed the article by Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards and once Thatcher's Chief of Staff, in the Mail on Sunday. It  drips with longing for 'Attila the Pen' as he looks back on the internal memos of her first years in Downing Street.

But this longing for Thatcher is profoundly misconceived, if not deranged, picking up from the later madness that drove her from office. Dobbs writes,

there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Eighties, perhaps the first of which is that no revolution was ever won by hand-wringing. ‘Let’s follow the compromisers!’ has never been much of a battle cry.

What shines through from 30 years ago is that history can be written by the force of personality and sheer willpower...

Recessions don’t disappear by waving a wand, and successful politics requires nerves of steel to keep sight of those elusive long-term solutions. Otherwise we end up like Ireland.

This is a fascinating melange. First, what is "the revolution" that these Tories are so determined upon? Second, there was in the UK of the 1970s a major social and economic crisis, with double digit inflation and interest rates. This did call for a new political direction. But Thatcher's solution, far from being a mere act of will, was bankrolled by North Sea Oil which had turned the UK from a massive importer to an exporter of energy, a de facto beneficiary of OPEC's closed shop. Third, while she broke the influence of the unions thanks to the even more deranged and undemocratic syndicalism of Arthur Scargill, her own revolution was the 'Big Bang' that deregulated the City of London and helped lay the basis for the US-UK finance-led boom of the last thirty years.

Today's recession and economic crisis, however, was caused not by the wage inflation and low domestic productivity of her time but by the very forces that Thatcher herself unleashed (a point calmly if indirectly admitted by Melvyn King in his "We let it slip" speech to the TUC).

The idea that a steely and tough assault on domestic welfare is going to repeat Thatcher's success (if you regard it as such) is bonkers, therefore. Because her solution is now the source of the problem. Worse, the UK no longer benefits from a surplus of black gold.

But there is also something deeply unhealthy about the idea that "sheer will power" and "nerves are steel" are what are needed, as opposed to intelligent process, accountable and honest government. This is not an argument for confusion, flip-flops and ill-concieved compromises. On the contrary, the first thing that is needed is good judgement - based upon a grounded and persuasive understanding of what the problem is. There is something infantile that reproduces rather than resolves the 'British disease', in thinking that all that is needed is strength of will to slash and burn.

I have no doubt that we will hear more of the cult of Thatcher. But after making all the anthropological allowances possible for the validity of voodoo in its own tribal time and place that once gave it its resonance,  the cult is today simply round the bend.

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