The Lady's not for learning

Her regime was built on the use of ruthless freedoms, so just who is Baroness Thatcher to complain about the 'resulting permissive society', asks Anthony Bevins
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As Margaret Thatcher quietly celebrates her 71st birthday tomorrow, the rejoicing could be marred by a small shadow.

After 11 years in office, and more than five years after John Major succeeded her at Number 10, Baroness Thatcher has come to a rather grim conclusion - that all is not as rosy as Tory Cabinet ministers might have had us believe in Bournemouth this week.

The woman who once suggested that there was no such thing as society - as opposed to the families and individuals who thrived, or merely survived, within it - made a very sombre speech last month.

She told the Institute of United States Studies, in London: "Liberty decays in an atmosphere where all is permitted and nothing is prohibited. The resulting permissive society is in fact no society at all."

Savour the words; let them marinate the mind. Soak them in and feel the bile rise. But, as you might expect of Lady Thatcher, there is more where that came from. She never did anything by halves.

"We have witnessed a coarsening of everything from art to music to literature to film. But for some people, there seems to be nothing beyond the pale - for them, freedom has no limits.

"The younger generation is being reared in a morally corrosive atmosphere where they are taught that anything goes. There is no elevation of the human spirit in works designed merely to shock or to appeal only to our most base instincts."

Coming from the woman who used to pretend that some of her own Government's biggest blunders had nothing to do with her, but were always the fault of people who had kept her in the dark, this balderdash should not surprise us.

But it is curious that she limits the "coarsening of everything" to the world of art and culture. Why not politics, too? If freedom has no limits, might she not bear some responsibility for that?

After all, was not Thatcherism characterised by the unbridled use of power - power without limits - to beat up and beat down the perceived enemy within?

If anything goes, where did that come from? Who was it that appealed to "our most base instincts" - the money-grubbing, devil-take-the-hindmost culture in which the shop-doorway homeless and the privatised utility "fat cats" emerged as abiding monuments to Thatcherism?

What a cheek, what gall, what brass neck. For Thatcher of all people to turn round and wonder where all this came from is too much.

But it has to be remembered that Lady Thatcher actually believed the myth that was spun by her acolytes.

Recently asked to identify John Major's greatest achievement, one of his closest Cabinet allies, Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, said: "Building on Margaret Thatcher's great achievements."

That rather begged the question - yes, but just what were her great achievements? "Margaret Thatcher's great achievement," according to Lang, "was to start the modernisation of Britain, to liberate the enterprise of the British people, to remove the dead hand of the state, and to give freedom its head."

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, put it rather more reflectively - and accurately - in his Centre for Policy Studies lecture in Bournemouth on Thursday night.

"We have restored our national self-confidence," he said. "In the early years of this Conservative Government, we achieved that by showing iron resolve over the Falkland Islands abroad and in banishing the British disease at home, culminating in the government being prepared to face up to, and in the end face down, the year-long miners' strike."

It is curious that a man who appears as civilised as Mr Rifkind, an Edinburgh lawyer of moderate Tory tendencies, should volunteer a link between the Falklands and the miners' strike.

For some of those who were closest to Margaret Thatcher in the early years - those who created Thatcherism before she even knew it existed - grew to detest the style that emerged from the two "wars" - against the Argies and the miners.

Observing her at close quarters, over some years, they witnessed the way in which Margaret Thatcher began to lash out at all-comers, using variously the gun, the baton and then the handbag against all opponents - even those within her own Cabinet.

If she could take on and beat the Argentinians and the miners, there could be no stopping her. The might of the Soviet Union, the back-door socialism of Brussels, the socialism of British Labour - all became targets, which she hit with varying degrees of accuracy.

But she became indiscriminate. Taking on local government with the poll tax rather missed the target, although she would never admit it. She did subsequently admit that the Single European Act, with its sacrifice of sacred sovereignty to the free market, was a sacrifice too far.

There has never been any apology, however. That is not her style. Thatcherism never made mistakes; it was seamless, pure, perfect.

Rampant and excessive trade union power was curbed; monolithic and impersonal nationalised industries were privatised. They were replaced by rampant and excessive management power to put people on insecure, short-term, part-time, low-pay contracts - and by equally monolithic and impersonal privatised industries.

And, as The Independent has revealed, there is pitiful little left to show for all privatised industry revenues, North Sea oil revenues, high- level public sector borrowing and debt, and the record peaks of personal tax burden that have accompanied the years of "modernisation".

But if one symbolic action illustrates Thatcherism more than any other, it is the way in which the teachers were treated. It was as Secretary of State for Education in the Heath administration that Margaret Thatcher came to public attention when she cut free milk for secondary schools and earned the title "Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". She never seemed to have much time for teachers, and it showed when she became Prime Minister in 1979.

Over the years, she treated them like scum, with a contempt they did not deserve. If the education system was not delivering, it was their fault. Derided, scorned, spurned and publicly vilified, the teachers were just one more Thatcher target. Because they were more vulnerable than other groups, they got a specially good kicking.

Then Tories wonder why some children are unruly, why some parents show no respect for the teachers. Remember, it only takes some children and some parents to go bolshie for the whole system to break down.

So, happy birthday Lady Thatcher. Perhaps you will have time tomorrow to reflect that it is easier to destroy than to build. You destroyed more than you built. Having smashed the bottle on so many heads, it is no use now crying over spilt milk.