The Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

There is no such thing as society. There is only you and me.

by Peter Smith

Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral last Wednesday was a glorious occasion of pageantry. Her remains were moved the day before to the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft in the heart of Parliament, where, under the gilding, the coffin lay, draped in a Union Flag, so politicians and staff could pay their respects.

Margaret ThatcherShe lay in state in all but name.

On the morning of the funeral, tens of thousands of well-wishers lined the route up Whitehall and past Downing Street – a place she knew so well – to Trafalgar Square and then through central London to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Outside the Royal Courts of Justice the coffin was moved from a hearse to a gun carriage. It was accompanied by hundreds of soldiers, horses, and a military band in a slow march along Fleet Street and up Ludgate Hill to the steps of the Cathedral.

The spectacle was a strange mixture of patriotism – stiff marching, starched ceremonial dress bordering on eccentric (one MP came in the official attire of the Privy Council) – and the sentimentality and popular outpouring of grief whose acceptability was ushered in by the death of Princess Diana.

A handful of protestors turned their backs as she passed. Ironically, they were a stone’s throw from Goldman Sachs’ fortified London offices, but any boos were drowned out by applause.

She was clapped wherever she went.


I went out to watch the Iron Lady as her cortege passed, the woman who, as I explain elsewhere, arrested the managed decline of Britain in the 1970s and kept the country in the top division of international economic, political and cultural power.

Her driven belief in entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth started a chaotic social revolution whose turbulence is very much felt today.

As she memorably told an opposition MP in one of her last Parliamentary debates as Prime Minister,

People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have.

What a policy.

Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy…The extraordinary transformation of the private sector has created the wealth for better social services and better pensions – it enables pensioners to have twice as much as they did 10 years ago to leave to their children.

We are no longer the sick man of Europe-our output and investment grew faster during the 1980s than that of any of our major competitors.

A cutting put-down, all would agree. But that MP, who had asked about income inequality, was onto something, as inequality has worsened markedly during and since the Thatcher era.

The root of this dynamic is well known. As industries became internationally uncompetitive and financially unsustainable, hundreds of thousands became unemployed and their communities collapsed. The British state was no longer willing (and query whether it was in fact able) to prop up unviable sectors of the economy.

The children of that lost generation now form a large class of post-industrial workers who have no physical labour – manufacturing, agriculture or heavy industry – to turn to. In essence, whole classes of people were left behind during the Thatcher Revolution.

Although the rot had started before 1979, Mrs. Thatcher has taken much of the blame for this dynamic. Her legacy as Prime Minister has to be recognised as a troubling: an explosive sense of purpose for some, the destruction of the ties that bind (and a concurrent sense of purposelessness) for others.

There is a good case that the Conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s failed to make suitable provision, or, in many cases, any provision at all, for those sacked as the mines closed and the shipyards turned out the lights. A cohort was parked on social security, particularly unemployment and disability benefits, and the result today is that large areas of Britain have become dominated by people dependant on welfare and the creation of public sector jobs.

Thatcher’s opponents thought that she was in fact deliberately trying to cleave the country in two, an accusation given weight by one particular interview to Women’s Own magazine in 1987:

“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society?

There is no such thing!

What she meant in this passage has troubled her friends and foes alike. Once the nanny state’s comfort blanket was removed from her people, those people had to provide for themselves.

There are individual men and women and here are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

Mrs. Thatcher’s solution seems to be highly selfish, but she immediately clarified her beliefs thus:

It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation…

This sense of reciprocity and mutual obligations and responsibilities is not self-referential: as emotions, they must flow from higher, overarching story which explains human motivation in a deeper way.

At the funeral service in St. Paul’s, the Right Reverend Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, commented in his address on a speech Thatcher had given on her Christian faith. She had said, “Christianity offers no easy solutions to political and economic issues. It teaches us that we cannot achieve a compassionate society simply by passing new laws and appointing more staff to administer them.” Mrs. Thatcher, as Bishop Richard noted,

[W]as very aware that there are prior dispositions which are needed to make market economics and democratic institutions function well: the habits of truth-telling, mutual sympathy, and the capacity to cooperate. These decisions and dispositions are incubated and given power by our relationships.

In her words, ‘the basic ties of the family are at the heart of our society and are the nursery of civic virtue’. Such moral and spiritual capital is accumulated over many generations but can be easily eroded. Life is a struggle to make the right choices and to achieve liberation from dependence, whether material or psychological.

This genuine independence is the essential pre-condition for living in an other-centred way, beyond ourselves. The word Margaret Thatcher used [in her speech] was ‘interdependence’. She referred to the Christian doctrine, ‘that we are all members one of another, expressed in the concept of the Church on earth as the Body of Christ. From this we learn our interdependence and the great truth that we do not achieve happiness or salvation in isolation from each other but as members of society.’

All the post-industrial classes in Britain are crying out for moral leadership from the political, business and cultural – including religious – elites today. The post-industrial working class lost much of that moral and spiritual capital which Bishop Richard referred to, intangible social value which had so carefully been incubated and stored in families across decades. Just witness, in the week before Mrs. Thatcher’s death, the agonised national debate surrounding the conviction of Mick Philpot for the murders of his six children in a house fire. The challenge, then, is for a leader (and a concomitant set of close and powerful supporters and ideas) who will continue the Thatcher revolution into the social sphere, and provide the same verve and vigour in the reshaping of civil society in Britain.


Peter Smith is a lawyer in London. He has previously worked for a Conservative Member of Parliament, and has written for and The Commentator.

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