Maggie Thatcher versus the establishment
She was, beyond a doubt, the greatest British political leader since Winston Churchill and, like him, she was cordially hated by many grandees of the party she led.
The entire British establishment, from the royal family down, often wished she would just go away. In the end, a Cabinet cabal proved too much for her and drove her into exile.
Britain hates talent, at least in its rulers. Maggie Roberts wasn’t just talented – she was the incarnation of everything the 20th century British establishment loathed.
She was female, a trained scientist, aggressively middle class, personally assertive, openly nationalist, got on well with Jews and was utterly opposed to the mix of tepid socialism and stale one-nation Toryism that constituted the middle ground of British politics during the disastrous generation following World War Two.
Modern Britain’s greatest leaders are deeply disliked, often as much by their own party as their opponents. If Churchill’s fellow Tories had been able to pick a successor to Neville Chamberlain in 1940, as Europe crumbled around them, they would have picked the peace-minded Lord Halifax over Churchill. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were similarly hated – even as they dominated British political life.
There are two key reasons why the British hate their strongest and most effective leaders. One is the extraordinary power a popular prime minister with a solid majority can wield. Such a prime minister is essentially an elected dictator – with political and legal powers an American president can only possess in his dreams.
Britain normally counteracts this problem by putting the blandest of nonentities in 10 Downing Street: Stanley Baldwin, Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath, James Callaghan. Safer to trust power to faceless mediocrities than to larger-than-life personalities on a mission of change. The British may call in a powerful prime minister in an emergency – when Adolf Hitler is building ships along the Channel. But when the emergency is past, they transfer power to a safer pair of hands.
The second reason that the Brits often turn on their most effective leaders is related. Britain is a smaller, more centralized society than the United States, and its establishment is far more powerful.
In times past, the establishment was embodied in the Anglican clergy, some respected public intellectuals, the gentry in the country and the leading bankers, magnates and merchants in the cities. The faces and backgrounds have changed since the days of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli (fewer vicars and hereditary peers, more trade unionists and senior civil servants), and this more diverse Britain is harder to lead, but the British establishment continues to play an important checking and balancing role in politics. While there aren’t many legal barriers to contain a prime minister with a majority in the House of Commons, the disapproval of the establishment can have a chilling and limiting effect on a prime minister’s options. Strong-minded prime ministers inevitably run up against the cautious, consensus-seeking establishment and, over time, it forces even the strongest personalities aside as British politics regresses to the mean.
To Americans, this system seems odd. But the British set it up in 1688 and haven’t had a dictatorship or coup since. Few countries have anything like this record of freedom and stability.
But there’s a catch: The establishment is good at keeping the mostly unwritten British constitution on an even keel; but, since Queen Victoria died in 1901, it hasn’t been good at running the country. The nation dithered into World War One and fought it badly, brutally and destructively, without the strategic flexibility that marked past conflicts. Before World War Two, the establishment believed that disarmament was the way to avoid war with Germany – the Munich Accords between Chamberlain and Hitler weren’t an aberration. They were the climax of an establishment foreign policy blessed by the good and the great. Only cranks and outcasts – like Churchill – dissented, and the establishment was (and is) quite effective at sidelining cranks.
After the war, the establishment found a new, almost equally destructive genteel consensus. From Churchill’s resignation in 1955 a stream of well-meaning non-entities passed through the doors of 10 Downing Street. Labor or Tory, they subscribed to the postwar credo: tepid socialism and a welfare state that failed the poor while weakening the economy.
Whether in 1930s appeasement or the postwar welfare state this bipartisan consensus backed disastrous policies until they pushed the country into such a hole that the establishment temporarily lost its head, and turned to a talented outsider in despair. As soon as the emergency is over, however, the long knives come out and it’s back to the comfy mediocrity of consensual decline.
That is what Churchill and Thatcher had in common: They were outsiders who stepped into a crisis the establishment couldn’t solve on its own. In his last years, Churchill was vindicated and brought back into power. The voters who dismissed him before the guns of World War Two fell silent called him back for an encore in 1951, and Churchill chose the time and the manner of his departure.
Thatcher never sought power after her party showed her to the door. But no subsequent prime minister of either party has tried to reverse the basic changes she made in British life.
Thatcher failed to solve all the problems she identified – like all politicians. In Europe, she saw that the eurocrats in Brussels were making policy choices that would plunge Europe into its worst crisis since World War Two. She warned presciently against the euro, and told anyone who would listen that centralizing power in Brussels was a recipe for European disaster.
But for all her insight, she couldn’t resolve Britain’s European Union dilemma. Britain can’t live with the EU, but it can’t live without it. European policy remains a minefield for British politicians, and Conservative prime ministers have the hardest time managing the conflicting expectations and goals that keep British diplomacy flummoxed and frustrated when engaged with the Continent.
Thatcher’s most important contribution was discovering the limits of the postwar social model. The welfare policies, state economic controls and entitlement systems established in the early- to mid-20thth century across Europe and North America were costing more and delivering less. Demographic change (fewer young people supporting more elderly retirees) and foreign competition made old entitlements unsustainable.
“There is no alternative,” the Iron Lady said and she was right. Like it or not, we can’t go on in the old way. The numbers don’t add up.
But what Thatcher found was a problem – not a solution. She didn’t unite her country, she polarized it. The same thing has happened in many other countries where “Thatcherism” remains a synonym for the cruel despoliation of the poor and the weak.
The social welfare policies of the mid-20th century no longer work very well, and more and more countries don’t have the money to pay for them even if they did. Thatcher was brilliantly right that the old road led nowhere. But 34 years after Queen Elizabeth appointed her prime minister, we still don’t know what new road we should take.
PHOTO (Top): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher receiving standing ovation at the Conservative Party Conference on October 13, 1989. REUTERS/Stringer/UK
PHOTO (Insert A): Winston Churchill Wiki/Commons
PHOTO (Insert B): British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher answering questions at a news conference in London, June 8, 1987. REUTERS/Roy Letkey