Was Margaret Thatcher a liberal?

Her champions say the former PM promoted individual freedom. But her record shows precious little proof of this

Share
Related Topics

Margaret Thatcher: loved by libertarians, yet one of the most authoritarian prime ministers of the past century. How can this be so?

Let’s start with policing because it’s the most authoritarian aspect of her premiership. Who can forget the images of “Maggie’s Boot Boys” deployed to crush strikers. Why do so many civil libertarians get all dewy eyed over her? One explanation might be the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, which marked the beginning of civil liberties legislation in policing. There were no regulations in law relating to, for instance, the right to enter a suspect’s premises, before PACE. Although Labour are often ‘blamed’ by Conservatives for the police’s (still rather limited) accountability over things like stop-and-search, these checks and balances actually began under Thatcher.

Social strictures

When it comes to social issues there‘s even less to recommend her as an icon of liberty. Thatcher was never going to win any medals for being the most progressive thinker on LGBT rights; as well as doing little to stem the vilification of gay men that came with increased panic about AIDs, her government was responsible for Section 28; perhaps one of the most spiteful pieces of legislation in modern times. So does she deserve any credit from social libertarians? Well, perhaps for two reasons in particular, she does. Thatcher was one of the first Conservatives to vote in favour of decriminalising homosexuality, at a time when it was still controversial at best. And, often forgotten by many social conservative Thatcherites, she voted yes to David Steele’s bill to legalise abortion, which became the 1967 Abortion Act. No, this doesn’t make her Simone de Beauvoir, but at a time when being pro-choice was not the popular consensus as it is now, and abortion was regarded as murder by a sizeable portion of voters, for a woman in parliament at a time when women in parliament were an anomaly, it was still a pretty brave thing to do.

Still, on the question of feminism, there should be no confusion. It’s true that Thatcher disproved no end of sexist myths about women – her leadership skills alone make Cameron look like a sixth former – yet it was always clear that, far from Thatcher’s success being some brow-furrowing point of contention amongst left-wing feminists, the left-wing feminists and Thatcher were in complete agreement: feminism is by its very nature collectivist. “I hate feminism,” Thatcher once said. “It is poison.”

The contradiction lies not with us, but with modern Tory feminists like Louise Mensch and Amber Rudd, who seem confident that feminism can be individualistic, after all, and celebrate Thatcher as a feminist icon, against what are seemingly her own wishes. Thatcher’s understanding of feminism seems more accurate than theirs: being a woman and supporting yourself is not the same as supporting women. If individual self-advancement is what you believe in, say so. The misappropriation of ‘feminism’ by modern Tories is just as problematic as Thatcher’s rejection of it; perhaps more so. Privileged women given speedy access to parliament through women’s shortlists, or parachuted on to party A-lists, often backing  or even introducing anti-woman legislation when they get there, but serving to help the privileged men running the party look pro-women: that ‘s where their 'feminism' gets us.

Press freedom

Of course, it’s not just Tory women who use Thatcher to advance their own interests, even where it contradicts the realities of Thatcherism. Guido Fawkes, who closed down his blog on the day of Thatcher’s death as a mark of respect, is one of the loudest defenders of ‘press freedom.’  Yet Thatcher herself was often something of an antithesis to press freedom. In fact, she was described by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell as “utterly disdainful of press freedom and open government” in an article recorded here by the Index on Press Censorship. What would the likes of Guido make of that?

Margaret Thatcher said her greatest accomplishment was New Labour. Tony Blair, in turn, said his greatest achievement was how he changed the opposition. Perhaps an ‘achievement’ they both share is to change what we mean by liberty.  

For the economic liberalism of Thatcherism, intended as a means to empower individuals, intended as a tool to reach an end, has now become the end in itself. The coalition’s brand of liberal economics is being driven not by ‘wealth creators’ but beneficiaries of inherited privilege. Whether out of political or economic wisdom, or both, Thatcher stopped short of privatizing things like the NHS. Cameron shows no such restraint.

But the fantasy of what Thatcherism represents has now transcended the policies, and even the woman herself. More important is the fantasy that, as Louise Mensch put it: conservative means achieve liberal ends. Yet, the irony is that Thatcher’s own premiership is a picture perfect example of how, oftentimes, the very opposite of that ends up being true.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
 

Never underestimate the power of the National Trust

Boyd Tonkin
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss