"You Turn If You Want To": But Margaret Thatcher, Britain's "Iron Lady", was not for turning. And that is the lesson John Pagani has failed to draw from her career. Powerful ideas, coherently organised and ruthlessly implemented, are extraordinarily difficult to resist. Only when the Left evinces the confidence in its principles that Mrs Thatcher had in hers, will the Right be decisively defeated.
JOHN PAGANI’s intriguing riff on Thatcherism and the importance of being on the right side of history has got me worried. It’s not that I think he’s wrong – there is much to be learned from Margaret Thatcher’s career. What worries me is that he’s learned the wrong lessons.
Mr Pagani characterises Thatcher as a politician of principle who was able to achieve great things for her country because, having set her course, she could rely upon the surge of History’s tide to carry her forward. Of course he’s only able to say such things because he knows how the story ends, which, from an historian’s point of view, is cheating. In 1979, when Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, the ‘surge of History’s tide’, far from favouring the Right, was assumed to flowing, with ever-growing force, to the Left.
For many Conservatives the image which best summed up the mission Margaret Thatcher had assigned herself was that of Horatius on the bridge. She was willing to be the “Last Tory”, just as Horatius was willing to be the “Last Roman”, denying passage to the implacable enemies of a great, if faltering, empire and averring, by her readiness to stand and fight, the power of Lord Macaulay’s oft-quoted lines:
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods
When Mrs Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition in 1975 the British nation was in crisis. It’s working-class was pushing hard against the crumbling structures of tradition and privilege in hopes of building a more rational and humane society. Twelve million strong, the trade unions had already seen off the Conservative Government of Edward Heath and had imposed upon a startled Labour Party a manifesto openly calling for the nationalisation of the “commanding heights” of the British economy and the introduction of “industrial democracy”. More than a few on the right of British politics feared that just one more king hit from the Left would see British Capitalism go down for the count.
But if Britain’s manufacturers were resigned to the state relieving them of their responsibilities, and her middle-classes already half-way convinced that the manifold absurdities of their existence (so brilliantly satirised in the BBC’s 1976-79 series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) had rendered them unfit to rule, there was still one, rock-solid bastion of British capitalism that was not willing to go gentle into that good night of socialism – the City of London.
The financiers of the City of London constituted the Imperial Guard of British Capitalism. It was extractive and parasitic, and cared not one whit for the vast workforces employed in Britain’s industrial heartlands. The City of London had not just grown alongside the British Empire, it had, in a very real sense created it. And the tribute of that empire, in the form of dividends and interest, continued to pile up in its vaults.
And the men of the City did not lack for resources. Above all else, the City was a vast and complex network – and its reach was long. It extended into Fleet Street and Oxbridge and the Civil Service. The younger brothers of City men could be found in the upper echelons of the armed forces, and, more disturbingly, in the ranks of MI5 and MI6. Descendants of Duke William’s knights, and of Henry VIII’s “new men”, the ones who ended up with Catholicism’s English acres; the families who ran the City of London had always known what to take – and how to keep it.
As Richard Crockett shows in his book Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983, it was men of the City who bank-rolled the so-called “New Right” and underwrote its ideological factories. And it was from these that the “new” ideas flowed: to the news media; to the universities; and to the Conservative Party faction, led by the cadaverous Sir Keith Joseph and his ambitious young protégée, Margaret Thatcher, which was determined to prevent the Left from delivering British Capitalism's coup de grace.
But, of course, they were not new ideas at all. Mr Pagani, having pumped himself full of Thatcherism's anabolic steroids, waxes eloquent about the “paleolithic”political tactics advocated by “left reactionaries” – all the time forgetting that the ideas Mrs Thatcher championed and the social order she constructed had already been tested to destruction in the hundred years between 1830 and 1930. Like the US officer in Vietnam,who was willing to “destroy the village in order to save it”, Mrs Thatcher was prepared to let Britain’s productive industrial base go under rather than see the City of London subjected to effective regulation.
And that refusal continues to exact its toll on British society. The consequences of the City’s unregulated greed are today as clear to Britons as Wall Street’s recklessness is to Americans. Mrs Thatcher’s historic achievement was not to show how far one can travel when History is pushing you forward, but how long History’s progress can be impeded by someone relentlessly pushing back. In the 33 years since Mrs Thatcher was elected, British society has not become more rational or more humane – quite the reverse. The breakthrough that so nearly occurred in the 1970s remains to be made, and only the Left can make it.
And that’s the lesson Mr Pagani failed to draw from his cinematic sojourn with Meryl-as-Maggie. The extraordinary power of ideas, and how far a politician and her party can go when those ideas are marshalled into a coherent set of economic, social and political objectives.
Far from advising New Zealand's Labour leader, David Shearer, to shun the looming battle on the Auckland Waterfront, Mr Pagani should be urging him to strap on his armour and unsheath his sword. Mrs Thatcher never ran away from a fight, which is why she was able to win over and over and over again. Nor did she have the slightest patience for those who advocated poll-driven ideological U-turns.
“You turn if you want to,” she famously told the Conservative Party’s doubters and worriers, “the Lady’s not for turning.”
Oh that David Shearer should prove as willing to go into battle for the long-delayed advance of socialism, as Britain’s “Iron Lady” did for the sterile ashes of her capitalist fathers and the high-rise temples of their greedy London gods.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.