Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925-2013) once famously said, in an interview to Woman’s Own of 31 October 1987, that "There is no such a thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”. Naturally she was often reviled for such a proposition, including by me as I repeatedly quoted her and criticised her vigorously for it in lectures and seminars.
Taken literally such a proposition is patently false. Clearly the collection of individuals and their families are interconnected in a vast and thick mesh of relationships – through economic, political and social institutions – known as “the fabric of society”. The total is infinitely larger than the sum of its individual parts.
But what Thatcher actually meant is that society is all of us, and is not an external entity distinct from the collection of all individuals and their families, so much so that she went on to say: "And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” A perfectly simple and innocent call for self-help, and for restraint in the reliance on government transfers from a budget to which in the end we all have to contribute. Sure, she was neglecting the fact that welfare transfers are not necessarily always a disincentive to create income and wealth, that they also represent a stimulation of demand and therefore may generate employment and income, and that a more equal and cohesive society may be worth attaining - at least up to a point - even if re-distribution had a net cost in terms of efficiency. But even these omissions and reservations are legitimate though possibly misguided opinions, for which Thatcher did not deserve to be reviled. Therefore belated but sincere apologies are due and are here unreservedly made.
Nevertheless, there are still many exceedingly serious reasons to revile her. The general principle, that one "not speak ill of the dead", does not apply to influential public figures (as we are reminded by Glenn Greenvald, Guardian 8 April): noblesse oblige. I lived in England throughout most of her political career, from 1962-1982, and intermittently until after her downfall in 1990, and disliked her passionately. Mrs Thatcher - for I could never bring myself to call her a Lady - to me was forever Thatcher-the-milk-snatcher (as in 1971, while Minister for Education in the Heath government, she abolished free milk for school children aged 7-11 years). Never mind the destruction of the British coalmining industry: coalmining is an attractive occupation and culture only in the morbid, romantic literary sickness à la D.H. Lawrence, and miners should have been retired gradually by Labour governments over the previous thirty years, instead of being kept employed artificially as a reserve army of Labour voters. But there was no reason to confront them as Thatcher did and unleash riot police on horseback assaulting them: she could have easily bribed them instead with the proceeds of North Sea Gas.
Nor was there any need to start a class war using a regressive and odious poll tax, or to deny Irish hunger strikers in the Maze prison their political status thus leading to their death. She lowered taxes and cut welfare expenditure and industrial subsidies, promoting de-industrialization and unemployment (that rose to a record of nearly 13 per cent under her watch); she privatized council houses without building new ones, and sold off all kinds of public assets, including public infrastructure (steel, airways, etc.) and utilities such as water, telecoms, gas and electricity, transferring massive public wealth to the private sector. She de-regulated economic activities, especially finance, and shrunk the size of the state. In doing this she somewhat revived competition - which she could have done if she had wanted to even without privatization - but did not promote economic growth in the UK, as she is widely credited to have done.
Thatcher never understood any macroeconomics - or she would not have written (in her Path To Power, 1995): "There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop." With infinitely greater confidence than that applicable to her assertion about society, we could say that "There is no such a thing as a market system". For in order to substantiate the naïf, oversimplified market vision of her mentors (Milton Friedmann and Friederich von Hayek, Alan Walters and Keith Joseph and the whole of the Mount Pelerin Society) as a system of self regulating equilibria we would need a system of complete markets, i.e. of exclusive, spot and inter-temporal, instantaneous and non-sequential markets, for all dated and contingent goods and services. Instead of which we only have a relatively small number of spot markets, a handful of forward markets except for labour and mostly for homogeneous primary commodities as well as money, all sequential and rarely contingent on the states of the world. In the market system as we know it economic agents act on the basis of expectations as well as prices in a typical, incontrovertibly Keynesian world of inadequate and unstable effective demand and involuntary unemployment.
Policies based on such hyper-liberal (then labelled monetarist) approach, which she shared with Ronald Reagan who gained power in 1980, had massive adverse consequences over time and space. They contaminated and corrupted the New Labour approach of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they deeply affected the transition path of the Soviet Bloc from central planning to market economies and caused its immense unnecessary costs, and they paved the way for the global Great Recession of 2008 which is still causing our misery to date.
Internationally, she strengthened her failing domestic support by declaring war on Argentina over Britain colonial possession of the Malvinas, instead of conducting political negotiations; her tears over the accompanying loss of lives, revealed by recently published War Cabinet papers, are only evidence of hypocrisy. She played a key role in bringing about the first Gulf War, and advocated the 2003 attack on Iraq. She denounced Nelson Mandela and the ANC as "terrorist", while she befriended dictators like Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and General Sukharto ("One of our very best and most valuable friends"). She opposed German re-unification and the euro but fortunately she was defeated by Germany and France trading one for the other.
For somebody so opposed to the state taking care of its citizens "from cradle to grave", it is ironical that she should be given a lavish “ceremonial funeral with military honours” yesterday in St. Paul’s Cathedral at an estimated cost of £10-12mn. It is only fair that Ken Loach should have suggested that her funeral should have been "privatized": "Put it out to competitive tender and accept the cheapest bid. It's what she would have wanted".