The Real Thatcher: Not in The Crown

Most of us were brought up on fairy tales of princes and princesses, kings and queens, fairies with fluttering wings and witches riding on brooms, and of castles, dungeons and dragons. It is therefore not surprising that The Crown, the Netflix series on Queen Elizabeth II and her family, has found a large audience. It purports to offer an insider’s view of a real-life fairy tale. It is not a documentary, and of course the scriptwriters take liberty with persons and events, both to simplify and to dramatise. This is what theatre is about, on stage as well as on screen. It is, and should be, distillation, not description. Alas, in the case of Margaret Thatcher who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, the Netflix scriptwriters present a caricature, not a portrayal.

Of course, outwardly Gillian Anderson bears an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher, more so than Meryl Streep who played her brilliantly in the film The Iron Lady in 2011. But Streep captured more of her strong and vibrant personality. I lived in England in 1981–5 when Thatcher was fighting her toughest battles, and then and afterwards I followed her career closely. I met her several times, although mostly at large, formal dinners. Outside a receiving line, I only had the opportunity to chat with her twice, both times in 2002. In September of that year I attended a small reception at the Estonian Embassy in London where Prime Minister Mart Laar was launching a book about the swift and sweeping economic reforms he implemented in his country in the 1990s. He merrily recalled her comment when he told her that he was introducing a flat income tax: ‘You are a brave young man!’ Thatcher was relaxed and gracious. She rather enjoyed the admiration she met in Central and Eastern Europe where she was seen as the only strongly anti-communist in Western Europe with deeds matching words: the Iron Lady. As I was chatting with her and Laar, she noticed a photographer, called him over, marshalled us into positions and had our photograph taken. She took it for granted, and she was right about it, that everybody wanted to have a photograph taken with her.

The second occasion was a month later, also in London. At a relatively small dinner, Thatcher was awarding the Bastiat Prize for journalism, and I was asked over to her table for a while to chat with her. She expressed her approval of the fact that Iceland had not joined the European Union. She wanted Europe to be an open market, not a closed state. Then she discussed the difference between the Anglo-Saxon political tradition on the one hand and continental political practice on the other hand. ‘I’m afraid that the Brussels bureaucrats and many politicians on the continent have never really understood the British tradition of liberty under the law,’ she said. Her brief account to me of what she saw as this tradition reminded me of Michael Oakeshott’s eloquent interpretation of the liberty that ‘lies in a coherence of mutually supporting liberties, each of which amplifies the whole and none of which stands alone. It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary, nor from any one of the thousand other devices and arrangements characteristic of our society, but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’ (The Political Economy of Freedom, Rationalism in Politics, p. 388). Of course, Oakeshott once remarked that Thatcher seemed ‘to be more of a genuine Conservative than her predecessors’ (in Daily Telegraph 29 June 1978).

The Thatcher I met was forceful without being domineering, dignified without being arrogant. She was robust and resolute, but not strident, let alone hectoring. But what matters more than the caricature of Thatcher’s personality in the Netflix series is the cliche-ridden misrepresentation of her policies. Incredibly, a deranged person who managed to break into Buckingham Palace is described as a victim of Thatcher’s allegedly callous, uncaring policies. It has to be recalled that Thatcher and her allies in the leadership of the Conservative Party had witnessed the utter failure of the Keynesian idea of full employment at any price. Before she took power, there had been a widespread, naive belief that by throwing money at problems they could be solved, in particular that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment: if there was unemployment, then you just needed to put into effect expansionary policies, print money, and it would disappear. This could only work for a while, as Thatcher’s economic mentors, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, predicted: then ‘stagflation’ would set in, a combination of stagnation and inflation. This is what happened in the 1970s. What Thatcher therefore aimed at, instead, was monetary and fiscal stability. Unemployment had to be tackled in the marketplace, by flexible wages and economic growth, in other words by natural and not artificial expansion. Trade unions could not be allowed to price non-members out of the market and to hinder the introduction of new and more efficient technology.

According to the Netflix scriptwriters, Thatcherism was socially divisive. But what was really divisive was the violence used by militant trade unions in order to hinder voluntary agreements between workers and their employers, most significantly during a miners’ strike in 1984–5 and a printers’ strike in 1986–7. In the battles we saw on the television screen, the police was protecting working miners and working printers against intimidation by pickets. When I was at Oxford, I attended a series of lectures by legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin. He criticised Thatcher for creating unemployment. I raised my hand. He smiled and paused, and I said: ‘But is unemployment not that the supply of labour exceeds the demand? And will this not be solved by the market, through price adjustments and economic growth? Surely most workers prefer low pay to no pay.’ Dworkin’s smile broadened and he replied: ‘Yes, of course, but it takes just such a long time.’ Soon after this, however, unemployment started to go down and was at less than 7 per cent when Thatcher left office in 1990. The theory worked, adjustments were made, new jobs were created. Moreover, when Thatcher closed down unprofitable coal mines and steel smelters, she was revealing unemployment rather than creating it. If blame there should be, it should be on the trade unions which had forced previous governments to continue inefficient, unprofitable operations.

The Netflix scriptwriters echo left-wing journalists, such as Simon Rogers of the Guardian who wrote in his epitaph of Thatcher in 2013 that under her poverty and inequality had gone up. He should have known better. His concept of poverty turned out to be that of relative poverty, often defined as the proportion of people with less than 60 per cent of median income. But relative poverty is really nothing but another criterion of inequality. What is relevant is absolute poverty, the lack of necessities, and during the Thatcher years it went down. ‘Poverty is about not having enough rather than about having less,’ as philosophers Loren Lomasky and Kyle Swan succinctly point out. Rogers was just saying that under Thatcher inequality according to one criterion went up, as did inequality according to another criterion! It is important to realise that in almost all Western countries income distribution became less equal in the 1980s and 1990s, not because any group became poorer, but rather because some groups became richer at a faster rater than others. What this implied was that new opportunities emerged.

Under Thatcher, Britain became a dynamic, flexible economy. It is said that then economic growth was slower than in the post-war years. Of course it was: Britain was recovering from the war. What matters is the long period of sustained economic growth from 1982 to 2008 (with the exception of two years). In this period the economy grew faster and performed better than in comparable economies, those of the United States, Germany, and France. Thatcher put the Great back into Britain. Perhaps Richard III could not survive Shakespeare’s portrayal of him as a sinister figure: possibly ahistorical, it is etched in memory. But Thatcher will survive the caricature of her in the Netflix series. Their scriptwriters are no Shakespeares.

(Gissurarson’s column in The Conservative 29 November 2020.)

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