Posted: May 5, 2009
s history the story of great men? This was a question faced by Claire Berlinski in one of her examination papers when she studied for a Ph.D in Oxford, and any Marxist could effortlessly write many pages refuting the idea. Currently the British government has decreed, in accordance with that rather Marxist paradigm, that history taught in British schools will be "themed." It will be about abstractions such as slavery, medicine, and war. The fact is, however, that the very beginning of historical understanding is chronology and contingency—dates and details. "Theming" the past turns it into bad sociology. And it happens that Berlinski's new book, "There Is No Alternative": Why Margaret Thatcher Matters, concerns a passage of international events that can hardly be understood except in "great man" terms—at least if we can ignore the fussing feminist who may object to our treating "man" here as generic rather than specific.
In the 1980s, a remarkable conjunction of events changed the then dominant international relations of the Cold War. A number of leaders came into office who happened to be quite different both from their predecessors and their successors. John O'Sullivan's The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister (2006) has brilliantly argued one version of this thesis, in which the personalities were Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher. Mikhail Gorbachev always threatened to ruin the symmetry of O'Sullivan's argument because he was clearly a pivotal player in the process. In Berlinski's Thatcher-centered version, the pope drops out and Gorbachev comes in.
Berlinski's book is part narrative history, part conversation with the people who could throw light on Margaret Thatcher—people such as Thatcher's press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham, advisers such as Charles Powell, and opponents such as Neil Kinnock, who faced her for many years over the dispatch box at Question Time in the Commons. The book begins with some of the clichés of current journalism—a woman in a man's world, the grocer's daughter from a nowhere place called Grantham, the English class system. None of them bothered Thatcher: rather, they tempered the Iron Lady's mettle. Berlinski's book improves as it goes along, and becomes a story of the battles Thatcher fought to change the decadent Britain of the 1970s.
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Berlinksi, who has written insightfully about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in her previous book, Menace in Europe(2006), shows now how capable statesmanship can redirect history's seemingly irreversible tide. Her central thesis is that Britain in the 1970s was in serious decline, and that Thatcher turned the country around. A whole style of consensual politics had enfeebled society and left financially profligate governments at the mercy of trade union barons. The result was, among other things, increased public debt and rampant inflation. Ever since 1945 when Clement Attlee's government had nationalized industries and established the welfare state, the Conservative Party had accepted the socialist mixed economy. Everybody knew that rising welfare costs and union power were electorally untouchable. Well, almost everybody.
In Britain at that time, the more enterprising people despaired of its future. Britain was retreating from empire, and industrial managers no longer had the power to manage. This feebleness was not just a British disease. It was widespread throughout the Western world. John Hoskyns, one of Thatcher's advisers, observes that Thatcher was in part a trail blazer for Ronald Reagan, because under President Jimmy Carter, "America was suffering, in a less extreme form, from the same fashionable left-of-center waffle that we [in Britain] had been doing in spades, for years." One can only say (and as Berlinski recognizes) that the "waffle" still hasn't gone away. It survives in universities, bureaucracies, and large areas of the judiciary. In Britain it may currently be identified with the causes favored by the late Princess Diana.
It was Thatcher who rejected this feebleness, and her triumphant government from 1979 to 1990 was a succession of battles against what often seemed at the time like a classical hydra. Along with her Conservative colleague Keith Joseph, Thatcher espoused a Hayekian version of the free market. The result was not merely a changed policy but something like a moral revolution. She denounced socialism as an immoral system that enfeebled those who lived under it (much as Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union an evil empire), leading to the same sniffy disapproval in Britain that Reagan inspired in American liberals.
In late 1978, the evils of British welfarism spectacularly dramatized themselves in a succession of strikes that left rubbish piling up in the streets, and even in some cases the dead unburied. This was known as "the winter of discontent" and was the perfect prelude to Thatcher's electoral campaign calling the country back to reality after decades of socialist illusion. Her slogan "there is no alternative" is the title of Berlinski's book.
The internationalist version of this debilitating "waffle" rose to a crescendo when in 1982 Argentinean troops seized the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Thatcher ignored the clamor that arose for arbitration, compromise, and a United Nations solution. Although some institutions in Britain were corrupt and enfeebled, she believed the armed services were not among them. She chose the risky option of sending military forces 7,500 miles to take the islands back. On a cost-benefit analysis such a move was absurd: the Falklands' 1,800 British inhabitants could have been re-housed in Britain and given abundant cash assistance for what the war cost. But international relations are not accountancy, and this heroic enterprise transformed British morale. It also helped Thatcher to win the 1983 election. It is a rather thrilling story and Berlinski tells it well.
She recognizes that dealing with such people as Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was far from being the only piece of luck in Thatcher's successful career. From the moment she challenged Ted Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party, her story is a succession of gambles that all paid off, until her passion for a tax plan to restore democratic accountability to local government led to such unpopularity that her colleagues decided she had to go.
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She had abundant luck, but it was her personal qualities that largely accounted for her success. She was unmistakably smart, and it is in trying to pin down what allowed her to dominate the country that Berlinski's book contributes to our understanding. The author is herself slightly shocked at the ferocity of Thatcher's moral disapproval of socialism. I have no doubt, however, that her moral profile was central to her success. It is remarkable how little most politicians stand for, but Thatcher stood for moral independence and a contempt for dependence. She not only admired courage, but had plenty of it herself. She regarded socialism as a school for self-pity and mediocrity. She did not speak with forked tongue, and many people admired exactly that stimulating directness.
Defending her as genuinely conservative, Shirley Letwin argued, in The Anatomy of Thatcherism (1993), that her basic aim was not to transform Britain but to restore to its historic place in British culture the vigorous virtues that had been so lost in all the waffle about tolerance, compromise, and compassion. Thatcher hated thinking of the British as a bunch of vulnerable victims needing government handouts.
Another element in her success has been a sense of humor, so that while she could indeed be intense, relentless, and argumentative, she could also detach herself and be amused. The idea that people with strong opinions are less quarrelsome than people who talk endlessly about being open-minded is, of course, profoundly wrong, and Thatcher and Reagan alike illustrate this. They had no trouble negotiating with those whose opinions they disliked. A sense of humor is an important component of intelligence. Those who thought that Thatcher was no intellectual were certainly right, but only at the cost of not recognizing that her political intelligence was remarkable. Her profound political and moral love of freedom gave her an unusual angle on most political questions. It also helped her choose the right moment for combat; she generally held fire until she thought she could win.
She certainly brought something unique to all the battles in which she engaged. No man could have exhibited her stamina in dealing with the Brussels bureaucracy, about whom she had long been ambivalent. She never ceased to insist, to the point where her fellow heads of state were asleep or grinding their teeth, that Britain subsidizing inefficient French farming in the CAP was unfair and intolerable. She had the courage to stand out against the oligarchic clubbability of the European Council in which benefits are bartered to the detriment of national interests. The simple reiterated demand, "we want our money back," could drive strong men to drink, and did drive French president Jacques Chirac to remarkable prodigies of sexist abuse, decorously quoted only in the French by Berlinski.
"There Is No Alternative" is then a version of the great man view of history, and rightly so. The individual, of course, must be recognized as a focus for a vast social and moral context. Thatcher "stood for" or embodied one powerful strain of moral virtue in British life, and "stood against" another moral fashion that thought those traditional virtues "outmoded." But what you "stand for" never decides the actual policy you adopt in all its detail.
The respect for Thatcher shown by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown testifies to a growing recognition that she did what had to be done. Let us hope that Berlinski's book continues this overdue reassessment of a remarkable statesman who still has much to teach us.