It is 34 years since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Coincidentally, she entered Downing Street 34 years after Clement Attlee won the 1945 general election. The whole history of post-war Britain is cleaved, neatly, in two. If the first half of that story was dominated by a left-led consensus, the second has been a triumph for liberalism. We have lived in an era of liberal emancipation and are much the better for it.
Mrs Thatcher, of course, was a great economic liberal. Her approach to economics, guided by Smith, Hayek and Friedman, stressed the importance of individual endeavour. Remove the dead hand of state control and Britain could flourish again. The many individual invisible hands of the market would improve our collective lot. Decline was not inevitable. It was time to believe in progress again.
And she was right. As a Manchester Liberal, Thatcher appreciated the power and value of economic liberty. Slowly, if unevenly, the impact of an era of market forces and economic liberalisation have been felt across the globe. Millions, even billions, have benefited from the more efficient allocation of capital. In Asia, Latin America and even (to some extent) Africa, market forces and liberal economic policies have worked. If the journey is not yet complete, we still inhabit a world transformed.
Closer to home, economic liberalism and the triumph of the market have had other consequences too. Mrs Thatcher was a social conservative. But one part of her legacy that is perhaps under-appreciated is the extent to which her triumph on the economic front contributed to her defeat in the social arena. There has always been a tension between economic liberalism and social conservatism. At some point and as we have, I think, seen, the two become incompatible.
That is, just as socialism was challenged and ultimately defeated by Thatcherite economics so too was social conservatism. The triumph of economic liberalism begat the victory of social liberalism too. Margaret Thatcher’s economic libertarianism (if it can so be called) would eventually advance the cause of social libertarianism as well. That she would have disapproved of this matters little; it is part of her legacy too. And a welcome one.
For it stands to reason, surely, that if the individual should be freed in the economic realm then individuals should be granted greater liberties in their own lives as well. But the economics come first. When the state retreats from commanding the economy (thank god), logically, it should also retreat on the social front. It loses the power to command and control. People, told they can make their own economic choices and that these will, in aggregate, be better than the state’s decisions, demand to make their own social choices too. There is an invisible hand at work here too and, among other things, it leads to gay marriage.
In his recent best-selling book What Money Can’t Buy the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel worries that market forces have triumphed so completely that they now threaten to tear the common fabric of society apart. Does everything now have a price? (Yes, but then it always did). Worse still, the “commodification” of life is, ultimately, corrosive.
He is right that the “marketisation of society” has changed the way we think. But it has often done so for the better. Take marriage, for example. In the western world today, marriage is often seen less as a holy sacrament and more as a legal and social contract. The nature of commitment has changed. Sometimes, this has a cost. The rise of “no fault” divorces underlines the contractual nature of the agreement and has made dissolving marriages ever easier. But if a market-oriented society has changed the nature of traditional marriage it has also, surely, opened the “marriage market” to homosexual unions.
And why not? The introduction of civil unions recognised that marriage had changed. It was both a response to injustice (denying gay couples the right to legally-recognised commitment) and a recognition that the meaning of heterosexual marriages had also changed.
At an Irish wedding I attended a few years ago the priest bemoaned the rise of what he termed “our disposable society” and perhaps he had a point. But it is also a more open society that, in its better moments, is more inclusive, more welcoming, less judgemental and less prejudiced. If the market is amoral, it is also mercifully indifferent to differences of colour, creed or sexual orientation. You are who you are and you may do what you want to do. For women, for ethic minorities, for homosexuals, this has been a great improvement.
Of course, some of this dates to the late 1960s too but the impact of those liberal reforms was concentrated or exacerbated by the economic liberalism that followed. The two, again, are dance partners, taking turns to lead. Economic conservatism (whether of the left-wing or right-wing variety) and social conservatism (ditto) were each challenged and, in large part, each defeated.
So this has been an era of remarkable liberty and opportunity. Protectionism of all kinds has been assaulted. Britain’s “immigration problem” (sic) is another consequence of Margaret Thatcher’s success. That she was no great champion of immigration (to put it mildly) matters little; the logic of immigration is at least in part drawn from the success of her economic views.
If capital should be free to move (on both a corporate and a personal level; young people may be astonished to discover that prior to Thatcher’s arrival Britons could not take more than £500 out of the country when they went abroad) so should people.
Tearing down the Berlin Wall and lifting the Iron Curtain was a great victory for western liberalism. So too was expanding EU membership, bringing the countries of eastern europe in from the cold. And this too represented a remarkable expansion of liberty. The Poles and the Czechs valued Margaret Thatcher’s trenchant opposition to Sovietism; they have also valued the opportunities afforded by liberalism.
The creation, still incomplete admittedly, of a more-or-less single european market in both goods and labour has worked wonders. Again, liberalism has prevailed and the Poles working in Britain are a part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy too.
If libertarianism means anything it means freedom from state coercion and the freedom to be who you wish to be. It may seem paradoxical that an era in which inequality increased and in which the bonds of “community” were said to fray should also be an era in which Britain became a kinder, more tolerant, more open society but I suspect that it is not and that economic advancement and personal freedoms are in fact two sides of the same coin that, by definition, can scarcely be separated.
Thatcher challenged orthodoxy and vested interests. But it is surely a mistake to presume that these economic battles would not have spill-over effects in other parts of society. The blessed victory of economic liberalism has helped marginalise social conservatism (itself a matter of orthodoxy and vested interests).
In these ways, then, Margaret Thatcher proved herself an accidental libertarian heroine. She might not have welcomed all these developments – indeed she would have opposed many of them – but they are part of her legacy too. And, I would say, they are parts that are as welcome as they were unintentional. Three cheers for that.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.