In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.
There is no more fateful failure of modern political thought than its failure to distinguish between elitism and social exclusivity. From this failure stems an enormous, costly, and increasingly intolerant attempt to rectify what is not wrong in the first place. One fights chimeras the better to avoid confrontation with real enemies.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher together moved the world decisively back toward classical liberal principles in the 1980s. Thatcher was elected earlier than Reagan, and she was a harbinger of what was to come in America and the world. Thus, it is significant today that new Prime Minister of Britain, Theresa May, is moving the Conservative Party decisively in the opposite direction—toward more statism and less liberty. It is not only in the United States that the party of the right seems to have lost its classical liberal bearings.
Margaret Thatcher at Her Zenith: In London, Washington and Moscow not only celebrates Thatcher’s many virtues but brilliantly captures the tragic flaws that were to bring her career to a bitter and unplanned end. Her fall was sad not only for her personally, but for classical liberalism more generally, because she left without grooming a successor who could have continued her reforms.
To begin, there is Thatcher’s character. The very single-mindedness and refusal ever to admit error that helped her push though transformative policies alienated everyone. Her opponents within the Conservative party were energized to wait for an inevitable misstep. But even Thatcher’s closest allies fell out with her. The book recounts how, as Prime Minister, Thatcher irritated and belittled Norman Tebbit, a star of her cabinet who had both the common touch and toughness to carry on her policies. Sadly, part of the reason for her abusive treatment was fear: she worried that he might gain the grassroots support to oust her, although he was in fact one of her most loyal acolytes.
Moreover, without a sound successor, Thatcher was unable to safeguard her legacy when she resigned for lack of sufficient support in the party. She had to choose John Major, who had been inadequately vetted as a short-term member of the cabinet. He turned out to be something of an opportuntist who was both unwilling and incapable of pushing Thatcher’s revolution further.
The other great tragic flaw was an intellectual mistake.
When I went to Oxford in 1978, I had looked forward to spending many weekends in London, one of the great metropolises in all of history. But after an initial visit, I rarely returned. Outside of a few well-known precincts it was a shabby city. But even worse than its appearance was the general sense of lassitude, even paralysis. For instance, it was hard to find places to sell you the simplest groceries outside of very strict business hours. And I was always worried about getting back to Oxford. Industrial action in the form of railway and tube strikes could occur at any time. The economic and spiritual climate of the country was as dismal as its fall and winter weather.
But now London is again one of the great cities of the world, vibrant, innovative and resplendent. One woman is responsible for the transformation of the city and the nation of which it is the capital. That is why it is such a wonderful event to have a superb new biography of her glory years by Charles Moore: Margaret Thatcher at Her Zenith: In London, Washington and Moscow. The book shows why she is one of the rare leaders who transfigured her nation for decades, if not centuries to come. The comparison is less to other British Prime Ministers, but to other transformative world leaders, like Peter the Great or Ataturk. And what separates Thatcher from those leaders is not only her sex, but her democratic methods. She was able to accomplish her goals while persuading fickle and shifting popular opinion.
In this volume Moore details the manner in which Thatcher replaced the state with the market in occupying the commanding heights of the economy.
David Cameron’s unexpected victory in the British elections Thursday is also an important victory for liberty. Rather than increasing spending after the financial crisis, he pursued what the left terms “austerity” policies. An austerity program is better described as a liberty program because it curbs the reach of the state by shrinking it. By contrast, government stimulus programs, like those supported by most of the intelligentsia in the UK and elsewhere, make the state more powerful by allowing politicians to direct a firehose of money where it will do them the most good.
Cameron’s constitutional thinking is sound as well. He wants to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU to make the latter more a free trade zone than a super state. Subsidiarity within a free trade zone can foster freedom while preserving accountable government. Within the UK, Cameron is also for the devolution of powers, not only in Scotland, but also in England, which should further align government with the people. Local jurisdictions could be more responsive to their citizens, and those who do not agree with the local politics may be able to move to another jurisdiction within the United Kingdom with policies they prefer.
Cameron’s differences with Ed Miliband’s Labor Party were huge.
Given that I am of Scottish and English descent, grew up in Australia, did my doctorate in Britain, and now live and work in America, I am about as much a product of what is often called “the Anglosphere” as it gets. That such a sphere exists, culturally speaking, has never seemed in doubt to me, even beyond the common linguistic and historical connections to the British Isles of this grouping of nations. Though I attended Catholic schools in Australia, for example, we learnt far more about British history than that of the Catholic Church (or Australia for that matter). The…
The central question addressed by Samuel Gregg in his timely ruminations about the Anglosphere is how ready and willing its member nations are to “collectively shape the global order” through collaboration beyond that in which they already engage. His chief contention is that, while the nations of the Anglosphere jointly possess the necessary economic, demographic,…
Samuel Gregg rightly concludes that the political cooperation required for the nations of “the Anglosphere” to act as an effective international bloc rests upon choices by leaders. Cultural ties and longstanding security relationships open possibilities, but pursuing them requires conscious decision. To elaborate on Gregg’s analysis, one would have to consider what presuppositions and concerns…
Samuel Gregg’s thoughtful Liberty Forum essay on the prospects for a functional “Anglosphere” leaves me perplexed. He is no Pollyanna on the matter, but to my mind he underestimates some monumental intellectual and practical difficulties confronting statesmen who would try to move the English-speaking peoples from ad hoc cooperation in various areas, animated by real…
World War I shattered the nineteenth century global system that had brought an unparalleled expansion in trade and economic development. Globalization lurched into a dramatic reverse. George Kennan’s remark that World War I dramatically narrowed the options available to statesmen applied no less to merchants, financiers, and consumers. What became known as the “special relationship” between the Great Britain and the United States guided three efforts at refashioning a stable global economic order. The first attempt following World War I failed by the late 1920s, but Anglo-American cooperation after 1945 laid a foundation for prosperity across the free world. More…
The attempt by the media and the political elites of the three major political parties in the United Kingdom to heap contempt on Euroskepticism no longer possesses the same power. With the victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party in local and European Parliamentary elections, the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union is a live one. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to a public referendum on this question in 2017 should the Conservatives be returned to power in 2015. I recently discussed the case for a UK exit with David Conway, a frequent contributor to this…