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A tribute to Margaret Thatcher

The Iron Lady’s legacy is that, thank goodness, the free-market economy is the only show in town

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

The amazing thing about the funeral of Baroness Thatcher was the size of the crowds, and the next amazing thing was that they were so relatively well behaved. The BBC had done its best to foment an uprising. With habitual good taste, they played ‘Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead’ on taxpayer-public radio. Asked to find some commentators to give an instant reaction to the death of Britain’s greatest postwar prime minister — an event that was not exactly unforeseen — they reached instinctively for Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone, two of her bitterest foes — if you exclude the Tory wets, that is.

As her cortège wound its way from St Bride’s to St Paul’s in downtown London, there were a few people so stupid that they heckled the mortal remains of an 87-year-old woman. A few turned their backs. Some wore twerpish Guy Fawkes masks or carried signs saying ‘Boo’. But the mass of humanity was on her side, and when the dissenters erupted they were swiftly drowned by cries of ‘Shhh’ or calculated volleys of applause.

I know all this partly from media accounts and partly because I walked through the crowds and I saw how various her mourners were. There were some tweedy types and some suited thrusters, and people who would generally not look out of place at a Tory party conference.

But there were also people from all over London, immigrants of every race and colour — people that the BBC might not have marked down, perhaps, as natural Thatcherites — and yet who had come to pay their respects to a woman who spoke to them and spoke for them as no other politician has done.

Alas, it is easy to see how anyone who had been exposed to the educational curriculum in most UK schools would form a low opinion of Margaret Thatcher. Look at the questions they set for politics A level. I have the papers for the last couple of years.

‘The industrial disputes of the 1980s were primarily the result of Mrs Thatcher’s desire to destroy the power of the trade unions.’ (45 marks).

‘Decline in support for the Conservatives and their continued electoral unpopularity were due to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher’ (45 marks);

‘Margaret Thatcher’s achievements as Prime Minister in the years 1979 to 1990 were limited’ (45 marks). And so on.

I wonder how many candidates got 45 marks by dissenting vigorously from any of these ludicrous assertions? For millions of poor misinformed students, she is simply a name to hiss — a byword for selfishness and bigotry; and yet I don’t blame young people.

All they have to go on is Russell Brand and the BBC and what their teachers tell them. They weren’t around in the 1970s. I was, and I remember what it was like and how this country was seen. Our food was boiled and our teeth were awful and our cars wouldn’t work and our politicians were so hopeless that they couldn’t even keep the lights on because the coal miners were constantly out on strike, as were the train drivers and the grave-diggers.

In March 1979 Sir Nicholas Henderson was retiring from Paris and writing his traditional valedictory letter to the Foreign Secretary. ‘Our economic decline has been such as to sap the foundations of our diplomacy’, he lamented. ‘Today we are not only no longer a world power, but we are not in the first rank even as a European one.’

Two months later Margaret Thatcher had won her first majority, and began the process of reversing that view of Britain, in this country and around the world. In 1981 she took on the expert opinion of 364 economists who wrote a pompous letter to the Times, calling for a U-turn on her budgetary policies; and she routed them by delivering a supply-side revolution in Britain whose benefits we enjoy to this day.

In 1982 she showed positively Churchillian pluck by deciding to tell the Americans and the Peruvians to stuff their peace plan, and she sent the navy halfway round the world on a spectacularly risky venture; and by the end of the year Galtieri was gone and the military junta was no more, and the principle of the Falklanders’ right to self-determination had been vindicated.

In 1983 she took on Neil Kinnock and gave Labour an epic drubbing. In 1984 she squared up to the miners all right — but she didn’t provoke the confrontation, to answer the A level question. She was facing a challenge from a Marxist demagogue who had no real interest in the welfare of his miners and who had refused even to call a ballot before a strike whose avowed purpose was to bring down the elected government of the country.

She took on the European Community over UK contributions to the budget — and won. In 1986 she took on the member for Henley (always a risky venture) over some question about helicopters; and though she won that round on points, she sowed the seeds of her future destruction.

By the time she was eventually felled by her own MPs — cravenly hoping that they would save their own seats — her achievements were not limited; they were colossal, and they were in many cases irreversible. She had introduced millions of people to the satisfaction of owning their own home; she had widened share ownership immensely; she had tamed the power of the unions and she had given back to management the power to manage.

She had also done something less tangible and far more important: she had changed the self-image of the country. To grasp what she did, you have to remember how far we felt we had fallen. Our country — Britain — used to rule the world — almost literally.

Of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 — that is 90 per cent. The only countries that seem to have escaped were places like Andorra and the Vatican City. In the period 1750 to 1865 we were by far the most politically and economically powerful country on earth.

And then we were overtaken by America, and then by Germany, and then we had the world wars — and we ended up so relatively weakened that the ruling classes succumbed to a deep spiritual morosity that bordered on self-loathing, and we gave in to the reverse of the fallacy that gripped the Victorian imperialists.

The Victorians were so vain as to believe that because they had managed to extend their dominions so far, and because the map was pink from east to west, that this must somehow reflect the reality of divine providence: that God saw a special virtue in the British people, and appointed them to rule the waves.

And because they had grown up reading such tosh the postwar establishment drew the logical but equally absurd conclusion that the shrinking of Britain must also represent a moral verdict on them all, but in this case the opposite — that we were now decadent, and that decline had set in with all the ineluctability of death watch beetle in the church tower.

Thatcher changed all that. She put a stop to the talk of decline and she made it possible for people to speak without complete embarrassment of putting the ‘Great’ back into Britain. And she gave us a new idea — or revived an old one: that Britain was or could be an enterprising and freebooting sort of culture, with the salt breeze ruffling our hair; a buccaneering environment where there was no shame — quite the reverse — in getting rich.

She transformed the idea of Britain, the Schwerpunkt, the mission statement — from sick man of Europe to bustling and dynamic entrepot.

It was Mrs Thatcher who made the essential point about charity, in her famous analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He wouldn’t have been much use to the chap who fell among thieves, she noted, if he had not been rich enough to help; and what has been really striking about the last five or six years is that no one on the left — no one from Paul Krugman to Joe Stiglitz to Will Hutton, let alone Ed Miliband — has come up with any other way for an economy to operate except by capitalism.

We all waited for the paradigm shift, after the crash of 2008. The Left was ushered centre stage, and missed their cue; political history reached a turning-point, and failed to turn. Almost a quarter of a century after the collapse of Soviet and European communism — a transformation that Mrs Thatcher did so much to bring about — there has been no intellectual revival of her foes, whose precepts are now conserved only by weird cults in south London.

Ding dong! Marx is dead. Ding dong! Communism’s dead. Ding dong! Socialism’s dead! Ding dong! Clause Four is dead, and it is not coming back.

Like it or not, the free market economy is the only show in town. Britain is competing in an increasingly impatient and globalised economy, in which the competition is getting ever stiffer.

No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about two per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

And for one reason or another — boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants — the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.

It seems to me that though it would be wrong to persecute the rich, and madness to try to stifle wealth creation, and futile to try to stamp out inequality, that we should only tolerate the wealth gap on two conditions: one, that we help those who genuinely cannot compete; and, two, that we provide opportunity for those who can. To get back to my cornflake packet, I worry that there are too many cornflakes who aren’t being given a good enough chance to rustle and hustle their way to the top.

The question I am asking today is not what did Maggie do then, but, ‘What would Maggie do now?’, because I think she would have taken the question of social mobility very seriously indeed.

I think she would want to help smart and hardworking kids everywhere. I think Mrs Thatcher would approve of the spirit of rivalrous emulation, as a means of driving up standards, just as she would approve of apprenticeships and every other means of giving young people the cunning and confidence to succeed in a place of work. She would have understood that the best hope of social mobility is an open and flexible labour market where people can move from one career to the next, as they do in America, and where business is always creating new jobs.

What would she do about tax and spending? What is the right approach to the economy? I hope it is not too obvious to say that she would cut the cost of government wherever she could, and she would cut spending as the economy recovers and she would cut taxes such as business rates and she would ensure that our personal taxation was at least competitive with the rest of Europe.

Boris Johnson is the Conservative Mayor of London and a former editor of The Spectator (1999-2006). This is an extract from his address to the Centre for Policy Studies in London last week.

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