London. To believe the American press, one would think that the British Conservative Party had elected a fully-fledged libertarian in Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the new leader of the Party. The Los Angeles Times describes her as "the English Barry Goldwater," while Time quotes lavishly from her past speeches in defense of free enterprise, private property and individual freedom and responsibility. We are reminded of her stopping the indiscriminate distribution of free milk to school children, and of her recent advice to housewives to stockpile food. She herself confessed that she possessed a larder full of food for an emergency. We are supposed to be aghast.
To be sure, Mrs. Thatcher's victory is a remarkable one. The first female ever to lead a major political party in Britain—and, at that, a party regarded by many as being antifemale (the Carlton Club, possibly the foremost political club—all male—in the world has offered her honorary membership)—in a country where there has never been more than one female in the ruling Cabinet, Mrs. Thatcher must surely stand a very good chance of becoming Britain's first female Prime Minister.
But the sex angle is a relatively minor one. Mrs. Thatcher has been called "the only man in the Conservative Party," and not without reason. After Ted Heath led the Party to its second election defeat within one year (it was his third defeat out of four elections), Mrs. Thatcher was the first person to say that she would challenge him for the leadership. Such contests, incidentally, are virtually unknown in Conservative politics. Other challengers only declared themselves when a contest had become inevitable. But her decision was fully justified by the results. After decisively beating Mr. Heath on the first vote, she went on to defeat four male colleagues with a clear majority over all four. She received 146 of the votes of her Parliamentary Party colleagues, while her nearest challenger, Mr. William Whitelaw, the Party Chairman, received only 79.
It was a victory well earned.
Though she is no libertarian, we can expect some revision from Mrs. Thatcher of former Tory collectivist policies.
To be sure, she is the most strident of the former disastrous Conservative Government (1970-1974) in her statement of traditional Tory beliefs. She has openly criticized many of the acts of that government—and publicly acknowledged much of the wrong. After being elected leader, she told an interviewer that one of the biggest mistakes of post-war Conservatism was that Conservative administrations failed to undo socialist measures. "Britain's progress toward socialism has been an alternation of two steps forward with half a step back."
"If a Tory does not believe that private property is one of the main bulwarks of individual freedom," she recently proclaimed, "then he had better become a socialist and have done with it. Indeed, one of the reasons for our electoral failure is that people believe that too many Conservatives have become socialists already."
Mrs. Thatcher is unashamedly middle-class. "If middle-class values include the encouragement of variety and individual choice," she has stated, "the provision of incentives and rewards for skill and hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual private property, then they are certainly what I am trying to defend."
She herself—the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer—rose from humble origins by effort and without inherited wealth or privilege. She won a scholarship to Oxford and is now married to an oil executive. For too long the Tory Party has been dominated by those who inherited much of their position, and were guilty of defending the system by which it had been gained. "Mrs. Thatcher," suggested an editorial in The Daily Telegraph, "ought not to suffer from that fatal and characteristic 20th century Tory defect of guilt about wealth. All too often this has meant that the Tories have felt themselves to be at a moral disadvantage in the defense of capitalism against socialism. What Mrs. Thatcher ought to be able to offer is the missing moral dimension to the Tory attack of socialism."
She has already chosen her "Shadow Cabinet," the official spokesmen for the Opposition. And although some have rather unkindly dubbed her team "the same mixture as before," Mrs. Thatcher has made several bold moves. Sir Keith Joseph—"it is my dream that Conservatives will stand for an economy based on free enterprise"—has been appointed chief of policy and research, a task for which he is eminently suited. He is perhaps the most scholarly of the new team, and, although a believer in the "social market economy" rather than laissez-faire, he has a firm philosophical base to his beliefs, and should provide much needed intellectualism for the Conservative hierarchy. He should also help prevent the old pragmatic mistakes of previous Tory administrations from being repeated.
Another encouraging move was the appointment of Sir Geoffrey Howe, a free marketeer, as Shadow Chancellor (Treasury Chief). He again has an intellectual foundation for his beliefs.
Perhaps even more important were the men Mrs. Thatcher dropped from her Shadow Cabinet. Robert Carr and Peter Walker, two of the most influential men in the last Tory Government, and both firm believers in wage and price control—despite the disastrous experiments of the past decade—were relegated to the backbenches. Walker commented that he was in agreement with the new leader on most aspects of policy, but sounded ominous when he warned his leader "not to accept the deceptive temptation of a rigid monetarist policy." Carr added, "I get terribly frightened by those people who seem to think [monetary policy] is some automatic mechanism.
Despite the disgruntlement of several former Government colleagues, Mrs. Thatcher's election seems to be very popular. A spokesman for M. Chirac, the French Premier, commented that Mrs. Thatcher "is not very well known in France. But," he added, "we have nothing against women…on the contrary." It would appear that the British have nothing against women either. One week after her election, a Gallup Poll (never too reliable, but perhaps an indication), showed a 4 percent lead for the Conservatives over Labour, compared with Labour's 14½ percent lead just one month before. The vast majority think Mrs. Thatcher will make a good leader of the Conservative Party, while 57 percent think that that Party's chances of winning the next election are improved, and only 7 percent believe them to be worse. And on a recent trip to Glascow, a notably non-Conservative area, Mrs. Thatcher received an enthusiastic welcome from a crowd and had to be protected by the police!
So certainly there is much encouragement to be taken from the election of Mrs. Thatcher. She is known for her toughness and could well be able to withstand whatever pressures are brought upon her for opposing collectivist policies.
But it is only an interim step. There are still too many liberals (in the American bastardized sense) within the hierarchy of the Tory Party, and still too little understanding of the morality of capitalism. It is difficult to have whole-hearted confidence in those who were part of the very same government with Carr, Walker and Heath, and who remained silent when every tenet of the Tory election Manifesto of 1970, promising a free economy and a freer society, was broken.
It is this columnist's opinion that it will not be too long now before Mr. Enoch Powell, a man of proven consistency and real understanding of capitalism and the free society, a man who was the first to openly challenge the collectivism and corporatism within the Tory Party, and who broke with that party at the beginning of this year, prepared to face the political wilderness for his beliefs, leads a majority in the House of Commons, and thus becomes the Prime Minister.
In the meantime, we must comment that Mrs. Thatcher's election represents a great improvement for the Tory Party, signals further—possibly decisive—debate over fundamental principles, and betokens hope for the future.
Guest correspondent Adrian Day is a graduate of the London School of Economics, where he majored in history. From 1972 to 1974 he was Assistant Director of England's Society for Individual Freedom.