Maggie Thatcher: A Role Model For Modi?
Rarely does the British Queen (monarch) break protocols. But on April 17, Queen Elizabeth II will make an exception. She will attend the funeral ceremony of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died of a heart attack on April 8, at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. The ceremony will be attended, among others, by top leaders from all over the world, including Presidents and Prime Ministers. U S President Obama will be there, along with one of his predecessors, Senior George Bush. It is not known, as I write this column, who will represent India on one of the most high profile global events, but I am sure that either a senior minister or the Vice President will be there.
The Queen’s decision to attend the ceremony is a break with procedure, because protocol states that royals do not attend the funerals of politicians. So much so that Queen Victoria had not gone to the funeral of former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli even though both were great friends. But then, this is not the first time that the present Queen of Britain is going to break this protocol. She had done that by attending another former Prime Minister’s funeral— that of Winston Churchill— in 1965.
What is common between Churchill and Thatcher, Britain’s first (and the last so far) woman Prime Minister? Both were from the Conservative party. Both were persons of strong convictions and clarity. And both evoked deep loyalty of the supporters and extreme hatred of the opponents. Yet, both guaranteed their places in the history. If Churchill has been rated the best British Prime Minister ever during a War, Thatcher is believed to be the greatest British Prime Minister in peacetime history.
What made Thatcher so different and cut above the rest to earn the nickname “Iran Lady”? The answer lies in the fact that Thatcher’s policies as Prime Minister (1979-90) changed many aspects of British life, and were collectively called “Thatcherism” because of the lasting effects it made. As the classy Economist magazine wrote, “Only a handful of peace-time politicians can claim to have changed the world. Margaret Thatcher was one. She transformed not just her own Conservative Party, but the whole of British politics. Her enthusiasm for privatisation launched a global revolution and her willingness to stand up to tyranny helped to bring an end to the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill won a war, but he never created an ‘ism’”.
In essence, Thatcherism represents a belief in free markets and a small State. Rather than planning and regulating business and people’s lives, government’s job is to get out of the way, it argues. Thatcher believed that the role of the State should be restricted to the bare essentials and that everything else should be left to individuals, to exercise their own choices and take responsibility for their own lives.
Of course, in matters relating to foreign policy and national defence, she was all for a State that should promote and protect national power; in fact, she was uncompromising in her zeal to make Britain a respected power in the comity of nations. This she proved in her victory in the much talked -about Falkland war, a war that made her the most despicable human being in Argentine (no wonder why Argentina has decided not to send any of its dignitaries to Thatcher’s funeral). It may be noted that on April 2, 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a remote UK colony in the South Atlantic. The move led to a brief, but bitter war with Britain.
Thatcherism also highlighted the virtues the typical conservative wisdom of hard work and family ties. Thatcher prided in the fact that though she was a grocer’s daughter, she succeeded because of her hard work and family-support. She believed that Victorian family values were the way to improve society, through people bettering themselves. In other words, she linked development and respectability to societal values.
Thatcherism was thought to be the answer in a time when Britain was passing through some real difficult times. Under the spell of Labour (Left) rule, the dominant thought then was that it was better to remain poor than being rich. And the massively powerful trade union movements worked every day to ensure that mediocrity was protected, individual achievement erased, and that all decisions were made collectively, i.e. with their veto.
The best example of it was the way Britain’s coal-workers, through their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), terrorised every government (its strike in 1974 had brought down the conservative Heath government). So much so that the mines were massively subsidised and hugely unprofitable. The workers did not want to modernise the functioning of the mines, despite the fact that the old ways of functioning was causing so many deaths due to years of literally lung-destroying existence and to pass it on to their sons for yet another generation of black lung. Any move towards modernising the mines was branded as “class war by Tory fascists”. But Thatcher was unmoved and uncompromising when the miners went for a nation-wide strike in coal mines in 1984. And after one year of strike, she had the last laugh. The perverse trade unionism got a huge blow. The liberalisation of the British economy got a big motivating kick. The country that had been crippled by industrial strife and decline that it began now became an example of credible alternative. Thatcher introduced privatisation of state-owned industries, including British Telecom, British Gas, British Airways and electricity companies, putting them back into private hands. Such a retreat of the public sector from large areas of the industrial landscape would have seemed unthinkable a few years before, but were pushed through.
All this is not to suggest that Thatcher always proved right. She divided the country deeply like nobody ever did before. Of course, she was winning elections, but that was essentially because her support was solid, though confined with the south and the suburbs and all but dying off in Scotland, Wales and the northern cities. The Tories, in fact, ceased to be a national party. But then the fact remains that the soundness of her policies was such that when the Labour Party returned to power with a thumping majority under Tony Blair, it got “Thatcherised”. Blair built upon the legacy of the Thatcherism by remodeling the Labour party. It is to Thatcher’s credit that she altered Britain permanently, re-establishing the core basics of a free society and a free economy that the country had intellectually bequeathed to the world and yet somehow lost in its own class-ridden, envy-choked socialist detour to impoverishment.
Thatcher’s economic liberalisation came to culturally transform Britain too. Under her rule, women were empowered by new opportunities. She was, in that sense, a liberator. She didn’t constantly (or even ever) argue for women’s equality; she just lived it. Under her rule, millions of Britons owned homes for the first time. Incidentally, it is because of Thacher’s policies that many Indians, and their other South Asian counterparts, benefitted immensely. She welcomed immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, and they became engineers of growth in Britain.
I agree with The Wall Street Journal, which hailed Thatcher as the “woman who saved Britain”. In an editorial, it said that “She achieved greatness because she articulated a set of vital ideas about economic freedom, national self-respect and personal virtue, sold them to a skeptical public and then demonstrated their efficacy”. I have quoted this particular editorial comment because it highlights the best of Thatcherism, which can be a morale—booster to political parties believing in the virtues of Conservatism all over, including the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) in India.
As I had written once in this column, the BJP is unfortunately becoming just another party. It has virtually fallen apart as India’s right of the centre conservative party. The urban middle class, its natural constituency over the years and whose size is growing steadily, has now doubts over its future, thanks to the party’s anti-liberalisation rhetoric. The BJP is ambivalent about free-markets, because it confuses pro-market policies with pro-business policies. In fact, if you do not believe in giving few select businessmen the monopoly over things, something the BJP pronounces publicly, the best way to do so is strengthening the market forces and lessening the role of the government. But in reality, the BJP has now surpassed even Communists in blocking the paths of liberalisation.
Of course, in his recent interactions with the industry, Narendra Modi gives an impression that he is in the mould of a Margaret Thatcher. But, will the BJP allow him to be a Thatcher? Will he be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate?
By Prakash Nanda