Bad time to glorify Thatcher

Mon, Nov 10, 2008, 00:00

BOOK REVIEW: Paul Sweeneyreviews There is No Alternative: why Margaret Thatcher mattersby Claire Berlinski

THE TITLE refers to Margaret Thatcher's famous quote that neo-liberalism was the only viable economic system. Now that the neo-liberal model has imploded, in a short time and very publicly, the triumphalism in the book seems dead. Claire Berlinski claims that this book is not hagiographic, but it is very close.

She says Thatcher was enormously significant. She is correct. She says she changed the world. She is correct. But when she says "for the better", she is very wrong.

Thatcher divided Britain, bitterly. Such was her obsession with individualism that she coined another infamous phrase, "Who is society? There is no such thing!"

She opposed sanctions against South Africa. She was opposed to German reunification as she was worried that a united Germany might be stronger, when in fact it weakened the German economy for many years. She replaced rates on property with the regressive poll tax which led to many riots.

It is sometimes difficult to take Berlinski's dogma: "Socialism itself was morally corrupting. Socialism turned good citizens into bad ones; it turned strong nations into weak ones; it promoted vice and discouraged virtue; and when it did not lead directly to the Gulags, it transformed formerly hard working and self-reliant men and women into weak and flabby loafers."

She says socialism is not a fine idea which is misapplied, but it is "an inherently wicked idea".

She asserts that Britain's decline was not a punishment for "the sin" of imperialism, but "for the sin of socialism".

"Thatcher proposed that in 1945 the good and gifted men and women of Britain had chosen a wicked path. In ridding Britain of socialism she intimated she would restore it to virtue" and "to greatness".

Yet Berlinski can write and she adopts an interesting style by reproducing interviews with some major players and observers of Thatcher's time. It gives a good insight into the person and her background. It covers some major themes such as the Falklands war, the miners' strike, her hatred of socialism, her relationship with Reagan and her Darwinian economics. She tried to get Arthur Scargill - an easy target, as he called the miners' strike without a ballot. This would never happen here. His unwillingness to compromise made him and the miners an easy target for Thatcher. The mines were going to close anyway.

As I wrote in The Politics of Public Enterprise and Privatisation(TASC/New Island), back in 1989, Britain had not nationalised the "commanding heights of the economy" after the second World War, but "the demanding depths" of declining industries. Coal, steel and shipbuilding etc were all nationalised when they became unviable. These sunset industries demanded increasingly larger subsidies from governments in the UK and Europe which could no longer afford to pay them.

In Europe, governments rationalised the industries with some rancour, but not the bitter divisiveness of Thatcher. Her core legacy was to divide Britain and to shift the balance of power to those with money. She destroyed one-fifth of British manufacturing.

Her major hostility to Europe continues to infect the body politic in Britain, which impacts negatively on Ireland. Had Britain joined the euro zone, life for Irish exporters would be much easier.

The missing chapter in this book is the one on Thatchers relations with Northern Ireland and on how she stood her ground against the Provos on the H-Blocks, even after they tried to blow her and her cabinet up in Brighton in 1984.

Thatcher and Ronald Reagan implemented their ideas of unfettered free markets, deregulation, lower taxes and less state involvement in the economy.

Yet Thatcher failed singularly "to roll back the frontiers of the state" as public spending remained the same in the UK when she left government in late 1990 as it had been when she took office in 1979.

Banking became bankrupt because of the extent of Thatcher/Reagan's deregulation and liberalisation. Markets were now so "free" that the masters of the universe, the CEOs and CFOs, were able to make up their own rules for the market.

Without regulation the financial innovators made obscene sums of money by selling toxic debt as AAA-rated. Banks have been rescued by the state all over the world. Governments are much in vogue. Bye-bye Thatcherism.

• There is No Alternative: why Margaret Thatcher mattersBy Claire Berlinski Basic Books €21 (£16.99)

• Paul Sweeney is an economic adviser to Ictu, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and has written five books on business and economics, the latest being Ireland's Economic Success