Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Statecraft, Margaret Thatcher

It is not always appreciated that there are two Margaret Thatchers.  One of them is the human being who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1979 to 1990.  This Thatcher was a successful politician with a streak of pragmatism who was flexible and sure-footed enough to win a record three general election victories.  She was a right-winger, but she was a right-winger who signed the Single European Act, increased spending on the NHS, talked worriedly about global warming and maintained a top income tax rate of 60%.  The other Thatcher is Thatcher the legend - the airbrushed hard-right icon who continues to inspire vicious, pathological loathing on the left and vacuous, cloying devotion on the right.  Once freed from the practical constraints of office, Thatcher the person allowed herself to become increasingly indistinguishable from Thatcher the ultraconservative icon.  Thatcher the person was a British Conservative.  Thatcher the icon was an American Republican.  And it was the latter, mythological Thatcher who wrote this book.

These are not novel observations on my part.  They have been made in the past made by, amongst others, Sir John Major, who suffered more than most from the ascendancy of the Thatcher myth, and Chris Patten, who wrote in his review of this book:
One reason for Thatcher's success in politics was that she always knew (at least until near the end of her premiership) that it was wise to alight from the train before it hit the buffers. While denouncing the notion that politics was the art of the possible, that is exactly what she practised, albeit skillfully and bravely redefining the limits of political possibility....

That is not the Thatcher of these pages. What we have here is a manifesto for the hard right of the Republican party - Richard Perle with knobs on. It's a manifesto for Orange County, but not for modern Britain.
Perle himself is mentioned in the acknowledgements section, together with such rock-ribbed Republican stalwarts as Steve Forbes and Antonin Scalia.  From the British side, the presence of the likes of Frederick Forsyth, Andrew Roberts and (dear God) Christopher Booker does not prepare the reader for a judicious, well-balanced disquisition on the world's problems.  And so it proves.


Let's start with the good stuff.  This is an intellectually respectable book.  At its best, it is intelligent and insightful, and it can't be dismissed as brainless polemic.  The prose is mostly sober, even forensic, and it has proper footnotes, even if a disproportionate number of them point to partisan right-wing sources.  As for the content, Thatch makes some interesting points about post-Soviet Russia, and her survey of Asian politics is readable and informative.  The ideology is certainly not wholly objectionable.  Thatcher's love of freedom is patently sincere.  As she reminds her readers, she has shown a rather greater willingness to criticise the Chinese government for its human rights abuses, both publicly and privately, than most other western politicians.  She wants western-style democracy to spread around the world, and she emphasises her liberal credentials, noting that the main accusation against her during his premiership was that she placed too high a premium on individual freedom at the expense of communitarianism.

The problem is that her benign liberalism has strict limits.  For one thing, her militarism is a little disturbing.  For another, she is rather too fond of foreign statesmen whose regimes were anything but Jeffersonian democracies.  She can perhaps just about be forgiven for praising Lee Kuan Yew, but it's more difficult to agree with her about the likes of General Pinochet (her most convincing argument in his defence is that he didn't kill as many people as Castro).  Closer to home, it is odd that she doesn't seem to understand what was wrong with the Austrian far-right leader Jörg Haider - it is apparently enough that (1) he wasn't left-wing and (2) the EU didn't like him.  She is even prepared to make excuses for Suharto of Indonesia, though she does appear to be a little uneasy about the man.  By way of justification for her indulgence of right-wing dictators, she cites Jeanne Kirkpatrick's well-known 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards", a tawdry apologia for propping up third-world tyrants as long as they weren't communists.

If it sounds like Thatcher's worldview has more than a whiff of Cold War politics about it, that's because it does.  In fact, the book begins with a triumphalist account of the end of the Cold War, in which she takes the West's eventual victory as a straightforward vindication of the hardline anticommunist policies pursued by Ronald Reagan and a certain M.Thatcher.  Whatever element of truth there may be in this is in danger of getting lost in the self-congratulation.  She makes no attempt to revisit in any detail the policy debates of the Cold War years.  She shows no interest in understanding why the 'doves' might on occasion have had a point.  She shies away from the brute fact that the grievous structural problems of 1980s communism were down to a lot more than Ronald Reagan's inflammatory rhetoric and defence budgets.  By her account, she and Reagan were right, right, right and the rest of the western world - including most of mainland Europe - was wrong, wrong, wrong.  This is history written by the victor, with a vengeance.

Thatcher's international outlook is unashamedly unilateralist.  She rejects internationalism and criticises progressive ideas about international law and human rights.  She argues firmly against undertaking humanitarian interventions in places like Somalia and Haiti.  This is depressing stuff.  It's easy to scoff at utopian ideas about internationalism and global governance, but I'm not absolutely convinced that Thatcher's alternative prescription of nationalist states armed with high defence budgets and pursuing unilateral foreign policies would pan out awfully well either.  In fact, I have a feeling that it's already been tried.  It it also worth noting that Thatch's somewhat Kissingerian views do not stop her from arguing at length that the West should have gone in harder and earlier in the former Yugoslavia, an issue about which she developed characteristically strong views.

Thatcher singles out the International Criminal Court (ICC) for criticism.  Now, international justice is a notion that needs to be handled with some care, but the ICC is a strikingly dull, worthy and indeed conservative institution.  It has spent most of its life to date investigating atrocities in hellholes like Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Its benign character is abundantly clear to mainstream diplomatic opinion and to the 119 states that have become parties to it.  As for the predictable concerns that it would be used as a political instrument to put US soldiers in the dock, the international community bent over backwards to accommodate American concerns, including handing Washington a veto over the court's proceedings.  This was enough for Bill Clinton - but not, apparently, for his successors.  In refusing to ratify the ICC statute, the United States has chosen to align itself with China, Iran, Cuba, Russia and North Korea.  Few will agree with Thatcher that this is the company that the leading power of the free world ought to be keeping.

More broadly, international co-operation is a necessity, not a luxury.  This is not utopianism, it is political fact.  It is not difficult to draw up a list of serious global problems that can't be satisfactorily tackled by means of Thatcher's preferred approach of unilateralist nationalism and high defence spending: mass migration, the narcotics trade, water shortages, HIV/AIDS, and so depressingly on.  It should probably come as no surprise that Thatcher seeks to let herself off the hook of having to deal with the greatest and most dangerous challenge of all - climate change - by the simple expedient of smudging all over the science and blaming concerns about the issue on "the usual suspects on the left" (who presumably include David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, Benjamin Netanyahu, John McCain and Mitt Romney).  She also brushes aside the very serious problem of overpopulation, noting that western countries are experiencing falling fertility.


Thatcher doesn't like Europe at all.  She spends two chapters excoriating the EU and all its works, and trots out her famous line that all the problems of her lifetime came from continental Europe and the solutions from elsewhere (read: the USA).  She recants her pro-European past and says that signing the Single European Act was a mistake.  She explicitly says that Enoch Powell - Enoch Powell! - was right about joining the EEC.  Yet it can't be a coincidence that Thatch was in favour of British participation in the EEC for most of her career as a practising politician, and turned to outright Euroscepticism only late in the day - in her third term, when her judgement was failing, and later, when she retired and lost touch with the realities of day-to-day political life.

Thatch is honest enough to admit that her case against Europe isn't an economic or technocratic one - it is profoundly ideological.  Her hostility begins with the notion of Europe itself.  She correctly notes that what "Europe" means is multi-faceted, and then extrapolates from this observation to assert that the idea of Europe is "simply empty".  This is an extraordinary claim.  The idea of Europe is "empty"?  Really?  Empty?  For all her name-dropping of Voltaire and Debussy, Thatcher appears to become historically and culturally illiterate when Europe hoves into view.  Europe is not only the continent to which the UK belongs - a brute, unanswerable geographical fact - but also the place from which we derive our indigenous languages, great swathes of our philosophy, art and literature, much of our political history, much of our non-political history, our traditional religious faiths and the majority of our ethnic make-up.  When Thatcher writes artlessly about "the Europeans", she is talking about us.

On a more practical level, the EU is by far our largest import and export market, and we are heavily entangled in the European financial system - which is precisely why the Euro crisis is such a problem for us even though we're not in the Euro.  And what of our place in the world?  Britain's days as a great power ended decades ago.  Are we going to try and make a go of it alone?  Are we going to depend on the goodwill of patrons in Washington who have different interests from us and would readily shaft us if it suited them?  Or are we going to remain as a central member of a union of 500 million people which accounts for a fifth of global GDP?  The question only has to be asked to be answered.  Thatcher needn't take my word on this, either - Tony Blair reported in his memoirs that the same point about Britain's influence in the world and the need to get over our nationalistic neuroses has been made by Manmohan Singh and Thatch's old mucker Lee Kuan Yew.

True, some of Thatcher's criticisms of the EU are valid - but where they are right they are usually also trite.  You don't get many points for pointing out that the Common Agricultural Policy is a bit of a racket.  Nor is it an especially penetrating insight that the European pensions systems are in a bit of a mess.  Thatch doesn't seem to have any really new or original arguments to advance.  At times, she even lacks coherence.  She seems to want to argue simultaneously both that the Euro will collapse in ruins and that it will inexorably lead to an undemocratic superstate.  She claims that a European military capacity will be ineffective but that it will be effective enough to imperil the Atlantic alliance.  It looks like any argument against Europe will do.

Thatch actually uses the frivolous tabloid scare-word "superstate", and argues for a fundamental renegotiation of the UK's relationship with the EU.  She flirts heavily with the idea of withdrawal, and repeats the essentially frivolous proposal of bringing the UK into NAFTA.  She doubts whether the former communist countries of eastern Europe should or even would accede to the EU, a position which now appears eccentric at best.  At any rate, none of them seem very keen to leave, and there are half a dozen or more candidate countries queuing up to put themselves under the yoke of the Brussels tyranny.  Perhaps Thatch knows something that they don't.  Or perhaps not.


The last chapter of the book is entitled "Capitalism and its Critics".  The first sentence contains the words "free-enterprise capitalism - capitalism for short".  This sets the tone for the rest of the chapter, and indeed for large parts of the rest of the book.  It's a bit like picking up a book by Heston Blumenthal and reading the words "pan fried salmon - or 'fish' for short".  Thatcher seems unwilling to acknowledge any form of capitalism other than the unregulated, laissez-faire flavour.  She doesn't really do nuance, as some of us have noticed over the years.

Yet Thatch herself shows an awareness that capitalism is a many varied thing.  She refers to the traditional corporatist Japanese style of capitalism, which produced the postwar economic miracle after Japan's ignominious defeat in World War Two, only to dismiss it as overrated.  In the Europe chapters, after making her ridiculous claim that the idea of Europe is "empty", she back-pedals to say that, insofar as it means anything, it means the social democratic form of capitalism.  She has the honesty to acknowledge that the European model is more effective at ensuring stability and managing risk than the American model, but she takes the view that the cost of this in terms of depressing enterprise and job creation is too high to pay.

Thatch is entitled to hold these views, but it is difficult to take seriously her airy rejections of alternative models of capitalism.  The social market model - as supported by conservative parties in France, Germany and elsewhere - has succeeded in delivering growth, employment and high living standards for hundreds of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere.  It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that she appears to believe that freemarket policies are the solution for any country's economic problems, at any time, anywhere.  This kind of ideologically driven politics can be terribly damanging when applied to the rough fabric of the real world.  It also sits uneasily with Thatcher's robust nationalism: political dogmatism is very un-British.

Thatcher argues that there is a moral case for freemarket capitalism, and unrepentantly reproduces her "no such thing as society" quote.  If inequalities develop, that's just because human beings are unequal.  She places the term "social justice" in scare quotes and says that the only form of justice that capitalism needs is a functioning court system and the rule of law.  She does not address the argument that grossly unequal societies are more inclined to develop corrupt and biased judicial systems, and, for that matter, political systems.  Suharto could have told her that much.  She also shows no recognition that high levels of inequality have wider social costs.

The flip side of Thatcher's cheerleading for laissez-faire capitalism is that she sees "socialism" everywhere, from centre-left European politicians to advocates of Third World development.  Her talk of "the organised international left" has a vaguely conspiratorial air.  If one looks, one can find benign references in the book to people on the left of centre, but not many.  There were repeated and rather tedious claims on the British left that Blair had accepted the Thatcher legacy, that he was the "son of Thatcher", and so on - yet Thatch repeatedly criticises Blair and the New Labour governments.  Her view of left-leaning politics is caricatured, and seems not to have evolved since the days of Brezhnev and British Leyland.  The left, she claims, believes that it is the state rather than business which creates wealth - a ridiculous idea which not even Karl Marx held to.  Leftists also think (she says) that wealth is essentially communal - full-blooded socialists admittedly do believe something like this, but no-one on the mainstream centre-left does.

This tendentious, partisan view of the world vitiates the book.  Thatcher makes no serious, sustained attempt to engage with criticism of her position.  It is purely "this is what I think" - albeit supported with footnotes to publications by the Heritage Foundation and Sir Alan Walters - and it is therefore quite worthless as a textbook of politics or world affairs unless either (1) you're already pretty sure that you accept the premises of Thatcher's view of the world, or (2) you're prepared to go to the trouble of reading several other books in order to find out what the counter-arguments are to her various breezy assertions.  What this is is a textbook of Republican nationalist conservatism, for those who want to read such a thing.