Monday, 8 April 2013

Remembering Margaret Thatcher

The defining politician of my life in England (1957-97); a prime minister who believed what she was doing was right, and stuck to her guns. A conviction politician, not one (like so many after her in the UK, in Poland - in any political system) who bends with the wind.

Casting my mind back to that spring day in 1979 when she became Britain's first female prime minister, I remember thinking that the Tories will be in power for a long, long time. And indeed they were - under her leadership (three election victories) to 1990, and under John Major's (a further Tory election victory) through to May 1997.

Margaret Thatcher changed the way I - and millions of others - thought about the role of the State. Like a household, the government should be solvent, spending less money that it brings in. A state should do the minimum - protect the citizen against threats internal (crime, ill-health, ignorance) and external (foreign aggression), and leave the private sector to get on with as much of the rest as possible. A slim bureaucracy.

I've pondered long and hard over how conservatism differs between the UK and Poland (here and here) and have come up with the following explanation. There has to be something worth conserving. Britain's magnificent economic history - driven by private initiative and the steam engine, created wealth that was passed on from generation to generation. It was preserved in good measure by social trust (a gentleman's word being his bond - the essence of free trade), politeness and fair play. This is worth conserving. Anything worth conserving in the system concocted by Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin and imposed on Poland by Stalin's Red Army?

Rather than point readers to various obituaries, I'd prefer to let her own words speak for themselves. So please - take time to read her most famous quotes here on Wikiquotes.

Polish conservatives are all for conserving national traditions, the importance of religion, the role of the family - shared values with UK and indeed US conservatives - but many of their economic views would bring about an apoplectic rush in Mrs Thatcher. A Big State, handing out money skimmed from hard-working entrepreneurial individuals and redistributed to those less willing to take responsibility for their own economic well-being, had no place in her conservatism.

If I were to define Thatcherism it is the notion that the wealth of nations is built by millions of hard-working, thrifty and entrepreneurial individuals rather than by the State. Famously misquoted as saying 'there's no such thing as society', she was an individualist not a collectivist. The notion of Solidarity - people supporting one another - was only of interest to her in the context of a trade union movement poised to bring down communism. She would have no truck with tax-and-spend top-down redistributionism. The Good Samaritan could only do good work if he had his own money with which to do it.

Is there anyone of her stature here in Poland? The only person who I've met and who suffuses me with the same feeling that here is a conviction politician in Jarosław Gowin. A social conservative who's bent on taking on the Big State, the vested interests of rent-seeking professional corporations and bureaucrats.

It will be very interesting to see how Margaret Thatcher's passing will be reflected in the PiSite media - in particular with regard to her stance regarding the trade unions and her policy of privatisation.

This time three years ago:
Katyń as genocide

This time four years ago:
Blazing bus, Trasa Łazienkowska


tobiasz11 said...

Szanowny Panie Michale,

Manipuluje Pan,przeciez doskonale zdaje Pan sobie sprawe z roznic miedzy charakterem zwiazkow zawodowych w owczesnej Anglii a zwiazkami ,ktore mamy dzis w naszym kraju.Co sie tyczy prywatyzacji-prosze sie nie osmieszac,czyz nie zauwazyl Pan jak przebiegala prywatyzacja i przebiega nadal w Polsce od poczatku lat 90-tych?

Posla Gowina nie przyrownywalbym do MT w zadnym charakterze.To jak porownywac chlopaka na wiejskim weselu odzianego w nowy garnitur z GS-u z powiedzmy Zyta Gilowska...

Pozdrawiam serdecznie


White Horse Pilgrim said...

Michael: there is a great deal of mythology about Mrs Thatcher, and you repeat too much of it. In reality she didn't cut Britain's deficit, and she didn't make the country more competitive. Her main legacy to most people is horrendously expensive housing thanks to deregulation of the mortgage market. Costly housing means high wages, so what population creates will be expensive. Oh, and there's the aftermath of a banking crisis that stemmed from a nasty mix of greed without sufficient regulation. Basically Mrs Thatcher didn't understand economics beyond the narrow limits of Hayek, a thinker on the margins whose ideas stemmed from particular circumstances in Central Europe long ago. In serving ideology before people, without compassion, she was morally no better than the socialists. Consequently she sold the population short. Back in the 1970s Britain needed change, we can agree on that, but hers wasn't the best medicine and it certainly wasn't the kindest or most civilised.

Michael Dembinski said...


An excellent and original point, well balanced and needed. As a 'winner' of the Thatcher years who avoided the messy fall-out by moving abroad, I accept your points with a certain humility.

lucretius said...

I assume (and hope) that that "excellent and original, well balanced and needed" was just irony. Every single point WHP makes can be easily refuted, but since that would just be a waste of time I will just point out that von Hayek had no relation at all with Mrs. Thatcher's economic ideas which owed everything to Milton Friedman (mostly via Sir Keith Joseph). Now, if someone doesn't understand the difference between Austrian economics and "monetarism" there is little point discussing any such topics with that person - hence the point about "waste of time". The comments about "greed" and " lack of regulation" are the worst kind of empty cliches (which is the reason why I hope the reply was ironic). Actually, regulation is worse then useless when the regulators are the main culprits in driving up a speculative bubble. To take just one example: one of the most heavily regulated (by several agencies including, of course, the SEC) companies on Wall Street was Bernard Madoff Investment Securities. Much good did it do too.

As for the Thatcher years and their effect on Britain: I actually had the opportunity to live through them, so I can speak from personal experience. My parents emigrated from Gomułka's Poland in 1968 and we settled in Britain, when Harold Wilson was prime minister. I was in my mid teens and held what would have been called on the Continent "social democratic" views. A few years of living under a Labour Government followed by the "wet" Tory Heath regime was enough to turn me into a firm Thatcherite and detest the Labour Party as much or more than the Polish United Workers Party. What particularly stuck in my memory was the enormous difference in the standard of living one immediately notice when visiting any Western European continental county - not just Germany or France but also Italy. The feeling was very similar to the one I had when first arriving in the West from grey and miserable communist Poland.

In 1980 I got my doctorate in mathematics and moved to Japan, (where I taught at various universities) which was at that time on a different level of development (not just in technology but that was the most obvious aspect) than the poor, decaying Britain. I lived and worked there for the next 30 years, but as I was British (naturalised of course) and had family there, I came regularly to visit. I soon became aware how things were changing - Britain was visibly catching up with the Continent (trying to deny it is simply laughable) and Japan in time managed to be infected with a variant of the "British Disease" that Mrs. Thatcher had cured.

It's not for nothing that both the current prime minister of Japan and the current (female) president of South Korea keep invoking Mrs. Thatcher's name.
Obviously they are also insufficiently "kind" and "civilised".