The Real Thatcher and the Symbolic Thatcher

Behind the icon


When Michael Manley was prime minister of Jamaica from 1972 to 1980, he nationalized industries, hiked the country's taxes, tightened the country's regulations, and established friendly relations with Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. When he assumed office again in 1989, the man had a rather different agenda: He privatized rather than nationalized, cut spending rather than increased it, deregulated rather than regulated. Interviewed by New Perspectives Quarterly in 1992, Manley declared that "an unfettered market, not the imposition of political control, can be the most effective instrument of opportunity for the poor." He wasn't a pure laissez-fairist—in the same interview, he said the government should "block monopoly without impeding the market incentive"—but the shift from his previous positions was striking.

Yet Manley still described himself as a socialist. Indeed, when he stepped down for health reasons after a couple of years in office, he was the vice president of the Socialist International. Naturally, New Perspectives Quarterly asked him to explain where exactly he differed from "such well-known nonsocialists as Margaret Thatcher, or Mario Vargas Llosa." Manley's reply:

Well, I don't know that I do depart from them. I suspect that what is happening is that an enormous process of convergence is happening in the world. I discovered with a lot of astonishment that I ended up with a lot of perspectives very, very similar to those of Margaret Thatcher. But there are some significant differences. Like myself, Thatcher would go the route of small business opportunity. Like Vargas Llosa, she too wanted to privatize in a way that brought thousands of individuals into the system as shareholders. But Thatcher could not take the extra step of wanting to empower the workers. She excluded the trade union movement. My model begins with the workers….I would like to get to the point where the workers don't need a time clock. Instead, they will come to work because they not only get a paycheck, but because a dividend payment will be waiting for them at the end of the year.

There's a certain amount of know-your-audience caginess at work here. When the leftist writer Manning Marable interviewed Manley for The Progressive a year later, Manley described the English figure with more distance: "you have to admit Margaret Thatcher is one of the most brilliant people in Twentieth Century politics. A sharp mind. A woman of fierce inner ideological conviction. She really was the philosopher of the radical Right; she cloaked Ronald Reagan in her own intellectual respectability. And so we have to give her that." He then skipped past his areas of alignment with the woman, leaping straight to what he saw as their disagreements about workers and adding that he didn't like the role she played in global debates about apartheid.

But. Still. Here we have a man of the left who was able to invoke Thatcher as a symbol of the market freedoms he had come to embrace, mixing her with his other influences to propose some sort of syndicalist-capitalist hybrid. It's jarring. It's even more jarring when you remember that Thatcher wasn't really a big deregulator.

In A Restatement of Economic Liberalism, Samuel Brittan noted that Thatcher's deregulatory agenda "was very limited," with "nothing comparable to the removal of restraints to competition among the airlines in the US." (With at least one industry—local radio broadcasting—her government wound up regulating more tightly rather than less.) But then, her economic record was always at odds with her reputation as a sweeping market reformer. For most of Thatcher's term in office, government spending increased: In her first eight years as PM, Brittan writes, "total public spending on programmes increased by 14 percent after allowing for inflation." Overall spending never did decline under Thatcher, and spending as a percentage of gross domestic product didn't move downward until her last two years. That was also the only period in her reign when Britain's taxes as a percentage of GDP went down, and even then the figure was higher than it was before she took power. As Bruce Bartlett pointed out a couple of years ago, Thatcher may have cut marginal tax rates on entering office, but she "paid for her 1979 tax cut by nearly doubling the value-added tax to 15 percent."

Thatcher did enact some genuine market reforms, most notably when she privatized enterprises her predecessors had nationalized. But at a time when countries all over the world were liberalizing their economies in one way or another—even nominally left-wing governments like Manley's in Jamaica or the Labour Party's in New Zealand—Thatcher's emergence as a symbol of the transformation was a matter more of cultural perception than political reality. The New Zealand Labor Party actually took its market-minded changes much farther than Thatcher did (and unlike her it had a pretty good record on civil liberties). But New Zealand's Roger Douglas was never a global icon like Thatcher, a symbol to be loved, to be hated, and sometimes—as Michael Manley showed—to be détourned in surprising ways.

Now Thatcher is dead. Some of the obituaries will describe the parts of her career that don't fit into the easy narratives. Others will just cheer or jeer Thatcher the symbol. And I suppose that's appropriate: The symbol was influential, just like the woman was. Maybe more so.