Thursday, April 18, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Dangerous Progressive

Margaret Thatcher was a conservative. She saw socialism (even in its democratic, parliamentary form) as a threat to individual freedom. My stating of the obvious has a purpose, which is to make clear that, headline notwithstanding, I am not about to diminish the late British prime minister by treating her as my personal Rorschach test, imputing to her principles that she did not, in fact, espouse.

But, that said, by contemporary American standards the Margaret Thatcher of the 1980s was a progressive: on the environment, on healthcare, and on market regulation she was quite liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word). Thatcher’s stances on these three issues show how far to the Right the center of political gravity has shifted. Nowadays, a candidate with her principles and policy positions would have a hard time winning the Democratic nomination for President, let alone the Republican one.

Climate Change
“[F]ree markets are a means to an end,” Thatcher said in a speech to the United Nations in 1989, which she commenced with praise for Charles Darwin. “They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services.” She then demanded international action on climate change, saying “[i]t is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay,” adding that while environmental protection requires economic growth “it must be growth which does not plunder the planet today and leave our children to deal with the consequences tomorrow.” 

The expression "inter-generational responsibility" was not one that likely ever passed her lips, but that is exactly what Thatcher was propounding. Any Republican candidates with the courage to voice to such sensible thoughts today, with or without a laudatory reference to Charles Darwin, would have to brace themselves for the Tea Party hordes, torches and pitchforks in hand.

Margaret Thatcher accepted the need for the National Health Service (NHS) and, while ever hopeful of establishing “internal markets” within the NHS, never questioned the legitimacy of a publicly-funded healthcare system. In 1982 she told the Conservative Party conference “[t]he principle that adequate health care should be provided for all, regardless of ability to pay, must be the foundation of any arrangements for financing the Health Service.” The following year in Edinburgh she declared, “I have no more intention of dismantling the National Health Service than I have of dismantling Britain’s defenses.” And it wasn’t all talk.  Margaret Thatcher’s governments devoted an increasing share of public spending to the NHS, rising from approximately 10% in 1980 to around 12% in 1989, tracking the percentages that went to defense in the same period.

It is hard to imagine even a moderate Republican (something that is, in itself, increasingly hard to imagine) proclaiming fealty to the principle of publicly-funded healthcare for all. What more flamboyant form of hari kiri could there be than for a contemporary conservative in the United States to stand before the Republican party faithful and not only equate healthcare with the national defense, but also to agree that a civilized society should fund both through taxation?

Margaret Thatcher deregulated the financial sector, most famously via the Big Bang reforms of 1986, thereby creating the conditions that gave rise to the subprime debacle and meltdown 20-odd years later. That may be a truism, but is it true? In a recent articlePhilip Booth, program director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, reminds us what really happened during Thatcher's premiership:
"[I]n general, the 1980s was not a period of financial deregulation. Insider trading was made illegal in 1980. The life insurance industry, which had been almost free of regulation for over 100 years from 1870, was re-regulated from 1980 to 1982. Bank deposit insurance was introduced in 1979. The sale of investment and insurance products came under statutory regulation from 1986. Further, the first ever regulation of UK bank capital took place under Basel I, agreed while Thatcher was Prime Minister."
Failing as they do to align with the myth, perhaps the facts as Booth presents them are so discomfiting to Left and Right alike that they will remain conveniently out of sight and mind. Margaret Thatcher exercising oversight and setting limits on the financial sector is an image that triggers cognitive dissonance among both her supporters and detractors. Far easier, for current purposes, to remember Thatcher as a cartoon conservative, a free-market buccaneer hacking and slashing at the remains of the welfare state while dancing around a bonfire of regulatory red tape. If we choose to remember her a laissez-faire warrior, the scourge of the public sector, then the cabal that currently controls the congressional Republican Party looks comfortingly normal.

How much more challenging and chilling to recall the reality of Margaret Thatcher's policies -- her respect for climate science, commitment to universal public healthcare, and refusal to give speculators free rein -- that would mark her out to today's Republicans as an unelectable outcast. For that matter, how well would Thatcher's policy statements play in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, sounding as they do more like Bernie Sanders than Barack Obama? It is a measure of how narrow the political spectrum has become when we can ponder the Iron Lady's legacy and say, "Margaret Thatcher: dangerous progressive."

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