Margaret Thatcher: An Accidental Libertarian Heroine

10 April 2013

12:37 PM

10 April 2013

12:37 PM

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.


Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Tom Round

    > ‘…The rise of “no fault” divorces underlines the contractual nature of the agreement….’

    In what universe, sir? Can you name any other type of contract where the court automatically sides with whichever party decides first to terminate the agreement, regardless of how much or how little each has done to keep their own side of the bargain, and where a party who initiates the breaking of the agreement may well end up financial better off than the one who tried to keep it?

  • Roger Hudson

    But if the ‘individual’ had been brought up on TV pap, left school at 15 without qualifications and could only wield a pickaxe how on Earth would liberating them to explore their potential do more than get them to sign on ‘the sick’. Healing Britain’s economic and social problems needed more than breaking the old socialist order, the ‘broken society’ of today is the result of not fixing the problem in the eighties.

  • Guru Mckenzie

    Good try Alex – but she was no libertarian – she was a social reactionary pure and simple

  • terregles2

    Where there is discord let me bring peace can’t say we noticed that .

  • HPFlip

    ” 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”

    This ideal sadly does not old true in China, Russia the U.A.E and other authoritarian capitalist countries.

  • terregles2

    Her supporters and her detractors both seem to be united in nastiness and bitterness. What a sad legacy.

  • terregles2

    Where there is discord let me bring peace. Guess she failed on that one.

  • terregles2

    ” Where there is discord let me bring peace. ” she certainly failed to deliver on that one.
    Think that we all might agree that one thing that unites her supporters and her detractors is nastiness.
    Even in death the confrontation and hatred she inspired in life goes on. What a sad legacy.

  • ProffessorPlum

    “individuals should be granted greater liberties in their own lives as well”

    They were certainly free to pay more interest on home loans and thus enrich the bankers. However, I’m sure this was not a consideration when she allowed council houses to be sold off.

  • Mac

    “Margaret Thatcher: An Accident”, would have been a more appropriate headline.

  • Jonathan Munday

    The problem is that the welfare state protects against the consequences of social libertarianism. Social conservatism preaches personal morality for the good of society.
    Libertarianism preaches personal morality for the good of the individual but almost every social liberal expects society, specifically my taxes, to be there to pick up the pieces.
    I am a libertarian but I do expect to have the liberty, too, not to pay for your choices.
    At the moment the cause of our underclass is social libertarianism and welfare

    • ProffessorPlum

      “At the moment the cause of our underclass is social libertarianism and welfare”

      There are many causes – a population higher than can be supported without imports is one. However, capitalism and the demand of some to profit from and live off the toil of others is another.

  • SadButMadLad

    Thatcher may have been an economic liberal, but she was no libertarian. She did not make the state smaller, in fact she made it more authoritarian.

  • allymax bruce

    Thatcher was a Traitor to the people of the four Home Nations; it’s easy to furnish policies for the 1% super-rich, all the while destroying any semblance of normal life to the massive population. Especially as it was the ‘normal’ working class people that went to war and died in foreign lands; saving Britian for real, while the super-rich 1% stayed at home never in any danger!
    Thatcher will be remotley remembered by the 1% next Wed’; but she’ll also be ‘widely remembered’ by the massive population of people of the four Home Nations next Wed’ !
    “Alex Massie a freelance journalist and former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman. He was short-listed for the 2012 Orwell Prize for his blogging.”
    That’s a bit like saying Alex Massie got a ‘first’ from the university of MSM; his supine speciousness, to push ‘the’ Zionist propaganda, gets him noticed by the Zionist prize-givers!

    • Bill Kenny

      Have a lie down Ally, schizophrenia is a terrible affliction.

      • allymax bruce

        Bill, what would you know about schizophrenia?
        Have you got any qualifications in psychoanalysis?

    • Colonel Mustard

      Oh dear. How tedious.

      • allymax bruce

        Try Thatcher as the financial Dr. Frankenstein! The inventor of ‘worthless money’. (See Keiser Report for reference).
        And while you’re at it, ‘try’ Bliar for war crimes; he’s now ‘eligible’ according to ‘International Law !!

        • GUBU

          I wouldn’t claim any great knowledge of psychiatry, but I (and Colonel Mustard) clearly have more understanding of grammar and punctuation than you’ve managed to acquire as a semi-literate antisemite.

    • Jeremy Poynton

      Speak for yourself please – how dare you pretend to talk for others.

  • pearlsandoysters

    I guess it’s incorrect to pay tribute to libertarian credentials of the successive Thatcher’s governments once the power of state was strengthened not diminished.

  • HJ777

    This is an interesting and thoughtful article.

    However, i would question one assertion that Alex Massie makes and that is the one about Margaret Thatcher being a ‘social conservative’. What does he mean by this?

    I would class myself as being economically liberal and a social conservative in my private life and outlook. However, I am very much a social liberal when it comes to the wider world – I do not seek to impose my private ‘conservatism” on others. My view is that “as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses’, it is really none of my business what other people choose to do.

    Is there really any evidence that Margaret Thatcher was substantially different? I do not remember her being in any way socially illiberal or oppressive. Can Alex Massie provide any examples of where she was?

  • HarryTheHornyHippo

    So what you’re saying is that everyone got rich and got laid.
    I dig.

  • Richard Nabavi

    “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”

    Not £500, but £50. The restriction indeed seems incredible now, even allowing for inflation, but removing it was just one of her many liberating measures which transformed the country for the better.

  • John King

    Thatcher made the profound misjudgement that private enterprise would replace the sold off state run or assisted enterprises if she created the right conditions, which included deregulating the markets. We attribute callousness to her but In fact there’s some evidence that she was very concerned that things did not pan out as she intended. We know now that private enterprise does not abhor all vacuums, just those which will show fast returns. There were many areas into which private capital did not rush: still hasn’t. The new generation of conservatives seems happy to continue the experiment even though the result doesn’t look any better.

    • MrVeryAngry

      The prime reason that private capital did not rush into those vacuums was because there was no return to be made. Or the industries concerned were so over-regulated that they were still proto-nationalised. Or there was so much unsound money washing about post Thatcher that it was misallocated. The trouble was that the Thatcher reforms did not carry on and were not deep enough. (Privatising health and education for example – and definitely the BBC). Plus tax reform did not follow deep enough either.

  • CraigStrachan

    “individuals should be granted greater liberties in their own lives as well”

    Individuals have liberty by right – it is not “granted” to them, certainly not by government. Governments may (should) recognise and respect the liberty of the individual, but they absolutely cannot grant something that isn’t theirs to give.

    • 15peter20

      Not many ‘rights’ (nor indeed much liberty) going round in the state of nature. In what sense do individuals outside society, laws, etc., have ‘rights’?

      • CraigStrachan

        Who’s talking about a “state of nature” or “individuals outside society”?

        • 15peter20

          I think you are — just trying to get clarity on how individuals have liberty ‘by right’, government or no government.

          • CraigStrachan

            Easily enough clarified.

            “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form”

            • 15peter20

              Seems muddled to me (and needs an asterisk after ‘all men’ of course) (and perhaps should be firmer about it being only men): if the Creator endowed men with these unalienable Rights, what need of a Government to ‘secure’ them? They must in practise be quite alienable, sans Government.

              • CraigStrachan

                Yes, elements of the Declaration and Constitution are rooted in the 18th century, for good and ill. But the vision of the proper role of government as servant of the rights of people endures. The choice is not between government and a state of nature. It is between a legitimate, limited government snd an illegitimate, overreaching one.

                What need of a government to secure rights? To replace a government that rode roughshod over those rights. The former a legitimate government, the latter not.

                • MrVeryAngry

                  The US Bill of Rights written in that lovely style has stood the test of time, whereas the Labour Parties Cl4.4 – the original pre Bliar version – also written in lovely Edwardian English has failed. It’s replacement reads like some ghastly corporate mission statement as always made by failing corporations.

            • Wibble

              Written by those who owned African slaves and committed genocide on the indigenous American Indian tribes. Still, nice idea though.

              • CraigStrachan

                Yes, and the idea lead inexorably to freedom for the slaves and tribal sovereignty (and casinos) for the American Indians. So all’s well that ends well.

            • Jonathan Munday

              Pious rubbish. Declaiming it doesn’t make it true, however, much it makes you blub.
              Ask the Sioux if you don’t believe me.

    • Jonathan Munday

      Tosh, there are no human rights. There are only the privileges of the Society in which one lives. Only Society can restrain the bully and the powerful and enforce the liberty of the individual. There are no human rights there are Society bargains.

  • 15peter20

    “So this has been an era of remarkable liberty and opportunity.”

    Except that one’s prospects in life are still so much an accident of birth. I respect many of the sentiments here, but the idea that lightly regulated capitalism results in ‘the freedom to be who you wish to be’ is bunk. It tends rather to monopoly — not of the state, but monopoly all the same.