Iron Lady and woolly liberals

Margaret Thatcher continues to divide opinions both here and abroad, usually along the lines of pro or con. My taxonomy is different: I ignore all opinions, for or against.

Opinions, as discrete from judgements, are useless. Judgements, on the other hand, aren’t, especially when sound. Alas, those emanating from liberals seldom are, regardless of where the liberals come from.

The Russian historian Tamara Eidelman is a case in point. This morning I watched her YouTube lecture on Margaret Thatcher, delivered from a broadly liberal position.

Eidelman exudes the milk of human kindness, and I bet she could even cite the provenance of this phrase. This thoroughly sympathetic woman deftly uses the Internet to carry history to the masses. Her lectures are erudite and cogent, which is laudable.

But neither she nor many within the ranks of the liberal opposition to Putin understand British, and generally Western, politics well enough. This makes it hard to harbour high hopes that Russia would flourish should they come to power and try to implement Western models, as they see them.

You may wonder why an Anglophone writer addressing a predominantly Anglophone audience would choose to comment on a lecture by a Russian historian on a British statesman.

The reason is simple: Russian Westernising intelligentsia have always been a mirror reflecting the West. The mirror is concave, making both the vices and virtues of the West appear enlarged and exaggerated. Looking in that mirror we can perhaps understand ourselves more clearly. After all, only something that’s actually there can ever be enlarged and exaggerated.

Eidelman is better-educated than most other Russian Westernisers, but she seems to form her concept of politics on the basis of general liberal principles and papers like The Guardian. Jumping from that springboard, it’s hard to reach the lofty heights of the complex phenomenon that was Margaret Thatcher, unquestionably our greatest post-war statesman.

Now, to Eidelman and most Russian liberals, the word ‘conservatism’ has negative connotations because they associate it with Putin. Still, being a scholar rather than an ideologue, she tries to put forth a balanced view, by and large succeeding.

Where Eidelman errs is in consistently describing Margaret Thatcher as a conservative. That’s a mistake often made by those who confuse the upper-case Conservative party with lower-case conservatism. The two may overlap here and there (these days, almost nowhere), but they are far from being coextensive.

Mrs Thatcher’s views would have made her conservative in America, but in Britain she really was a Whiggish radical. The difference isn’t so much in the ideas as in the balance among them.

English conservatism predates the Reformation and hence has strong Catholic, later also Anglo-Catholic, roots. American – and Mrs Thatcher’s – conservatism is predominantly Protestant, in her case even Methodist. Both types stress individual responsibility over collective security, self-reliance over dependence, hard work over indolence, a small state over a big one.

But the balance is different, as are the accents. Catholic, which is to say traditional, conservatism is rooted in church doctrine with its concepts of subsidiarity and solidarity. The former translates into the idea of individual responsibility based on the Christian concept of free will making free choices.

But also vital is solidarity: care for the weak, sick, widows, orphans and others who can’t take care of themselves. Conservatives don’t necessarily believe it’s the Exchequer that should provide such care, but then neither do they believe in the primacy of economic prosperity over all other considerations.

None of this is alien to Protestantism either, but there, especially in the Calvinist denomination dominant in Britain, the accent on rugged individuality and success through hard work is more pronounced. The solidarity aspect is downplayed, though not ignored.

Calvin assigned a redemptive value to wealth, seeing it as God’s reward for virtue. Austerity, thrift, self-reliance, unsmiling pursuit of material happiness, contempt for worldly pleasures are fundamentally Protestant virtues, summed up in what Max Weber described as ‘Protestant work ethic’.

This explains why even in our time Protestant countries boast a per capita GDP 1.5 times higher than in Catholic countries, three times higher than in Orthodox ones, and five times higher than in Muslim lands – this despite an ocean of petrodollars sloshing underfoot in the largest Orthodox country and many Muslim ones.

Thus Sweden is richer than Italy, but where would you rather live, given the choice? And Sweden is Lutheran, not even Calvinist, as British (and American) Protestantism tends to be. Italy would be my uncontested choice, but probably not Mrs Thatcher’s. Her worldview was largely formed by her Methodism, as was the balance among her political desiderata.

Eidelman ignores this aspect, as do most Russian (and British) liberals, which leaves her at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding her subject. She constructs a schematic representation of Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady and then tries to squeeze this complex phenomenon of a woman into the primitive contrast of individualism versus collectivism, Right versus Left, or capitalism versus socialism.

This is a conceptual error, and it begets a whole raft of smaller lapses, some of a factual nature. We’ve all done it, and far be it from me to take anyone to task over a gap in research. It’s just that some of Eidelman’s factual errors spring from her simplistic analysis.

For example, it’s logical to suppose that Mrs Thatcher’s commitment to meritocracy and individual attainment would make her a great champion of grammar schools. True enough, that’s how Eidelman portrays her tenure as Secretary for Education. According to her, Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, fought tooth and nail to preserve grammars against the onslaught of comprehensives.

The reality is rather different – and in general, Mrs Thatcher’s actions didn’t always reflect her rhetoric. She actually closed down more grammar schools than any of her Labour counterparts.

Under her aegis the number of pupils attending comprehensives almost doubled, from 32 to 62 per cent. This shows above all that Mrs Thatcher was a shrewd political operator, who acted on the polls showing that, after three decades of unremitting socialist propaganda, grammar schools were unpopular. But a courageous fighter for selective education Mrs Thatcher certainly wasn’t.

Eidelman successfully contains her problems with the philosophy behind free education streamed to fit the diverse abilities of pupils. She only says that it has both good and bad sides.

As her former colleague in the teaching profession, I fail to see any bad sides. Every teacher knows that in any class about 25 per cent of the pupils are above average, another 25 per cent below average, and the remaining 50 per cent somewhere in between.

A universal curriculum has to target the largest group, meaning that for a quarter of the pupils the curriculum would be too boring and for another quarter, too difficult. Dividing them into three, or at a pinch two, streams would benefit them all.

Conversely, lumping them all together runs the risk of producing whole generations of illiterate, deracinated Mowglis divorced from our civilisation – and this is an empirical observation, not a theoretical construct. However, such stratification runs against the grain of liberal egalitarianism, and Eidelman’s instincts go on strike, in the nicest possible way.

Speaking of strikes, she gives a reasonably accurate account of Mrs Thatcher’s confrontation with the miners, but the nuances again fall by the wayside.

Thus Arthur Scargill, head of the National Union of Mineworkers, emerges out of her account as a gracious loser. He saw that, after almost a year of industrial action, Mrs Thatcher had won. Hence, when met with an anti-strike picket, he said that his principles wouldn’t let him cross a picket line and meekly retreated.

I would have been tempted to mention that Scargill was a rank communist, part of the hard left faction within Labour toiling towards a revolutionary cataclysm. Mrs Thatcher’s stand was based not so much on an abstract belief in free enterprise as on the urgent need to save the country from mayhem. She was the British answer to Franco and Pinochet, but unlike them she acted strictly within parliamentary constraints.

Hence Mrs Thatcher had to work in a hurry. One never knew what the next election might bring, and time was of the essence.

Vindicating the old saw about haste and waste, she let her innate radicalism run riot. For example, she destroyed the traditional civil service that had served Britain well for centuries. Instead she proceeded from an unmitigated faith in meritocracy, not realising that over time it was bound to turn into spivocracy.

Her breakneck drive to sell council houses to the tenants set the stage for the subsequent mortgage crisis and a spate of foreclosures. And her closing down many of the smokestack industries was another sound idea undone by the speed of its realisation.

Had Mrs Thatcher felt she had a clear run of, say, another 10-15 years, she could perhaps have prepared the ground for her sweeping reforms by investing more time and money into retraining and relocation programmes, and other social parachutes. But, familiar with the vagaries of democratic politics, she acted precipitously, which created serious social problems.

Still, Eidelman’s palpable kindness and liberal instincts get the better of her. While admitting that the general standard of living rose greatly under Mrs Thatcher, she bemoans the resulting plight of the poor.

She doesn’t notice the inherent contradiction there. For the best way to help the poor is to reduce their number, and Mrs Thatcher’s reforms eventually achieved that end. Hers were desperate times, and she resorted to dangerous measures – with most, though not all, coming off.

I’m sorry that so many educated Russian liberals don’t understand Britain well. But then the same could be said about their British counterparts, and what’s their excuse?

4 thoughts on “Iron Lady and woolly liberals”

  1. As no-one has seen fit to expand on my post I will venture to do so, though my powers of analysis are too weak to do the subject real justice. For me, your analysis of Mrs Thatcher’s successes and failures is acute and correct. She got a lot right before losing support. Whether or not she could have continued along the right lines is a great imponderable to which, sadly, I can make no contribution.

  2. Lady Thatcher also managed to penetrate the old boys club that was Westminster without ever playing the victim.

    I remember being remonstrated by my mother for cheering the police in their battle with the miners during a screening of Billy Elliot. I can’t abide people who start fights and then whinge when the opposition gains the upper hand.

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