Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why intellectuals hated Thatcher

By Swapan Dasgupta

When it comes to pageantry, the British continue to be unrivalled. The “Ornamentalism” that once made the British Empire an object of awe and even reverence was in evidence, albeit on a more modest scale, at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher last Wednesday.

Perhaps the event lacked the underlying glamour of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 when grandmothers wept and veterans saluted the coffin of a man who had acquired the legendary status of a Nelson and Wellington. Thatcher, by contrast, was not someone out of a G.A. Henty novel. The battles she fought were distinctly unglamorous: against dreary bureaucrats in Brussels over trade and currency, against a tin-pot Argentinian dictator, against a doctrinaire dinosaur miners’ leader and, more often than not, against upper-class patricians with cultivated stutters whose upbringings hadn’t included dealings with a pushy woman with steely determination. Like Churchill she too fought a war; but it was a long-overdue civil war.  

Future historians will remain divided over her legacy. To the sceptics, she was a deeply divisive figure whose policies devastated communities and destroyed the inner tranquillity of post-imperial Britain. Thatcher, it will surely be claimed, tried to refashion a people into what they were clearly not. It will be said that what mattered to her was drive and enterprise—attributes that bypass the great majority of plodders. The lady who won three consecutive election victories quite conclusively, it would appear, was always loath to pander to the average.

Thatcher, it would seem, was a creature after her time. She took her inspiration from a time when Britain nurtured generations of individualists hungry for success and adventure. The ‘Victorian values’ she admired and advocated weren’t merely about hard work, thrift, self-help, patriotism and a respect for ordinary decencies. For Thatcher, an individual’s station in life wasn’t determined by the accident of birth: it was shaped by energy and enterprise. To her, the state didn’t exist as a safety net or a cushion: it existed as a facilitator to help people better themselves. That could be done by lower taxes, less regulations and a state that concentrated on its essential responsibilities. She hated the idea of a society of haves and have-nots; she wanted a nation of haves. In a sense she was at odds with the notion of social stability which implied a static, hierarchical order. Having experienced the social derision of Tory grandees for being a grocer’s daughter, she loved the idea of unsettling the status quo. She was a Conservative by affiliation but a revolutionary by instinct.

It was precisely because Thatcher couldn’t be neatly pigeon-holed that she aroused the unrelenting opposition of the intelligentsia. The hostility was so visceral that she was snubbed by her alma mater Oxford University and denied a Honorary Doctorate.

In hindsight the magnitude of opposition was surprising. Thatcher was not an intellectual in the sense that she didn’t write book reviews for the Spectator or attended literary soirées in either Chelsea or Hampstead. Yet she was deeply wedded to ideas and had a profoundly common-sense understanding of economics. In that sense she wasn’t the personification of the ‘stupid party’—the familiar Left-liberal caricature of the Right. The real problem was that the ideas that appealed to her were profoundly unfashionable in the group-think world of the media and the Senior Common Room. More important, initiatives such as the privatisation of state-owned industries and the sale of government housing—both important steps in the creation of a “property-owning democracy”, a Thatcherite ideal—were regarded as complete blasphemy. To conformist intellectuals who claimed a monopoly over the gospel, Thatcher was indeed a witch.

Fortunately, Thatcher never lacked self-assurance and courage of her convictions. She could egg on the people of Eastern Europe to soldier on against the ‘evil Empire’ because she was convinced that godless statism was indeed evil. She could unreservedly claim that she was putting the “Great” back into Britain because she knew that there was nothing to be ashamed of.

Yes, Thatcher was a polarising figure. But as Tony Blair rightly retorted: “If you decide, you divide.”  For the generation that rejected the political assumptions of the swinging Sixties, she was the Madonna. 

Sunday Times of India, April 21, 2013

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