Liberal Hero of the Week #34: Margaret Thatcher. (She’s also a Liberal Villain, too.)

by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention.

cf lib hero thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Prime Minister, 1979-1990
Reason: for her liberalising trade union reforms

There hasn’t been much room for nuance this week. Margaret Thatcher was either the finest Prime Minister this country has ever been graced by, saving a nation from destruction; or she was the worst thing that ever happened to Britain, laying it to waste in obsessive pursuit of her dogma.

That gross over-simplification suits those of left and right who want to self-define either as her disciples or her enemies. But it bears little relation to the messy reality: the staunch monetarist who retreated from the experiment even while she declared she wasn’t for turning; the doughty patriot who ignored warnings about Argentinian intentions towards the Falklands until it was almost too late; the champion of competition who converted public monopolies into private monopolies; the believer in thrift who gave away the profits from North Sea oil without thought to future investment; the convinced supply-sider who sold council houses at a discount but didn’t replenish the stock, leaving renters high and dry; the free marketeer who tried her utmost to limit free movement of labour through immigration controls.

There are many things Margaret Thatcher did which I agree with (though less frequently with the way she went about doing them, such as privatisation); and a good few things she did I disagree with. It is two specific trade union reforms implemented by Margaret Thatcher which make her this week’s Liberal Hero:

1) Ending the closed shop. I remember when studying A-level economics in the mid-1990s how extraordinary I found it that workers had once been forced to join a trade union or else potentially face the sack. Margaret Thatcher started getting rid of this infringement of individual rights of association in 1982, completing the process in 1988. As a result, individuals are now free to choose if they want to join a union.

2) Introducing secret ballots for strike action. Again, it seemed remarkable to me, a child of Thatcher, to realise that strikes could be called as a result of a show of hands in front of union bosses who, with their closed-shop privileges, had the de facto power to sack those who dissented. Initially the government made ballots voluntary, even funded the costs; in 1984 they were made compulsory, and workers finally had the right to be formally consulted.

cf lib villain thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Prime Minister, 1979-1990
Reason: for her centralisation of power

If Margaret Thatcher’s great triumph was liberalising the economy, her greatest liberal failure was her centralisation of power.

Liberalism is about trusting people to make their own decisions, believing they will more often make the right choice than the wrong one (and even when they do make the wrong choice individuals are more nimble than the state at learning the lessons of their mistake).

Local government is one, often imperfect, expression of that devolution of trust. For Margaret Thatcher it was a rival for power and had to be squashed. It was not good enough for her to allow local Conservative councils to lead by example by keeping rates low through competitive tendering of services: instead she introduced rate-capping and compulsory competitive tendering to force her will on local councils.

On the afternoon of her death (I assume by coincidence) the LSE Politics & Policy blog carried this assessment by George Jones and John Stewart:

In the 1980s it all went wrong. For the first time ever central government sought to control the spending and taxing decisions of individual local authorities, ending their right to determine their own levels of expenditure when financed by their own taxation. … Central controls escalated, legislation became ever more prescriptive, regulations increased in number and in detail, and statutory guidance largely replaced the softer influence of circulars. Hostility to local government or at least certain local authorities intensified.

The process continued, intensified, under Labour. But the illiberalisation of people power started under Margaret Thatcher.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.