Writing in the United Kingdom’s the Telegraph newspaper, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore used the occasion of last week’s Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty to reintroduce the former prime minister’s ideas into the political debate.
The conference, which the Macdonald-Laurier Institute partnered with the U.K.-based Centre for Policy Studies on, took place in London last week. It featured speakers such as Canadian cabinet minister Jason Kenney, former U.S. general David Petraeus and professor Niall Ferguson.
In his column, Moore calls on politicians to rediscover the ideals of economic liberty that Thatcher championed while in office.
Charles Moore, June 18, 2014
As you walk out of Oxford station, the first thing you see is a fairly unobtrusive door beyond the taxi rank. Above it are the words “Thatcher Business Education Centre”. It is a new part of the Said Business School. The centre was opened by the Prince of Wales in February. Last Friday, David Cameron arrived formally to dedicate it.
So it can be safely said that the “establishment” – Crown, government, our most famous university – now blesses the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.
But, as the Prime Minister himself pointed out, it was not always so. Her own university – which is also his – did not, as he put it, “properly appreciate her” when she was in office. He is right, and brave to say it in Oxford.
He understates the case. Although it had educated her, Oxford treated Britain’s first woman prime minister (and first scientist prime minister) with real unkindness. Mr Cameron called her “one of this university’s most stellar graduates in all its 800 years”. But, in 1985, Oxford refused her an honorary degree. The insult hurt her very much.
Some of the dons who rejected her were politically motivated. Others had genuine objections to her policy towards the universities. Many thought they were striking a blow for their independence against her power. But their behaviour illustrated the enormous struggle required by the twin subjects of today’s Centre for Policy Studies conference, “Margaret Thatcher and Liberty”.
Instinctively, Oxford was objecting to something new and bold. The suspicion continued for years. After Mrs Thatcher left office, the businessman and philanthropist Wafic Said wanted to found a business school as part of the university. He noted that Harvard had established such a school before the First World War, but Oxford had none. He had to struggle against the Oxford idea that business was not a fit subject for academic study – although for centuries the university had taken quite a different attitude to occupations such as law and medicine.
And when Mr Said had persuaded the authorities to let him give no less than £70 million of his own money and set the school up, he had to do a bit more persuading before he could name any part of it after Lady Thatcher. Only about 20 years after her “reign” did Oxford shed its Thatcher hang-ups.
I have often wondered why Mrs Thatcher encountered such resistance from some of the cleverest people in the land. Part of it, perhaps, was to do with her sex. But even more, I think, was to do with the radicalism of her ideas about liberty.
Pre-Thatcher, the word “liberty” had been put in a sort of open prison by 20th-century British political culture. It was allowed – rightly – to mean freedom of speech, the secret ballot, the parliamentary system, habeas corpus. But economic liberty – the right of each citizen to try to earn, make, trade, build as best he could – was locked in the cooler. Slump and total war had persuaded the ruling elites, and many of the voters, that “the economy” was something which had to be directed by governments for the common good. Economic liberty was equated with selfishness.
Mrs Thatcher reminded the world that property – far from being, as Marxists said, theft – is the fruit of labour. People will labour better if they are unimpeded and undirected by the state. If they can keep most of what they earn, they will earn more, and look after themselves and one another better. Economic liberty is central to liberty itself because, if you have it, the state cannot kick you around. It helps secure the other freedoms, such as that of speech. Indeed, it is a variant of freedom of speech. If you value the exchange of views, you should also value the exchange of goods and services. Exchange is what people freely do, if you only let them. It is how they learn from one another.
Obviously, these ideas, so long suppressed, threatened vested interests. Nationalised industries and other big corporations could see their monopolies challenged. So could government departments. So could universities, who had forgotten that their historic greatness and independence arose from benefactors, not from state financing. Politicians did not like being told that they were much less good at running the economy than was the simplest market trader at running his stall.
Above all, trade union leaders, who had grown used to a say in government and had specialised in disrupting the heavy industries which the taxpayer subsidised, hated their power being questioned. Under early 20th-century legislation, they even possessed astonishing legal immunities. The rule of law barely applied to them. Perhaps the thing that Mrs Thatcher said more often than anything else (and she was the mistress of repetition) is that liberty and the rule of law are inseparable. So she broke trade union power.
What happened in her time is well known. Exchange controls were lifted. Taxes were cut (though not by as much as she liked to imply). More people than ever before bought their own houses. Major industries – gas, telecoms, steel, oil businesses, airlines and airports, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar – were privatised. Price and wage controls were abolished. The percentage of individuals owning shares rose sharply. The percentage of the economy taken by the state declined. Trade unions became legally liable for secondary damage caused in industrial disputes and were made to vote by secret ballot.
Despite the massive controversy surrounding all these changes, none has been reversed. When Lady Thatcher died last year, she was described as a “divisive” figure. Yet there is a curious amount of cross-party unity about what she achieved. Even Ed Miliband, if he becomes prime minister, will not allow trade unions to settle his economic policies in advance, put up the top rate of income tax to 80 per cent, or nationalise BT.
But two problems do trouble us today. One concerns all those things which Thatcherism got wrong, or failed to complete. At what point, for example, does the freedom to borrow, so necessary for wealth-generation, go too far? How should we balance the huge recovery of global financial dominance by the City of London against the adventurism of big banks gambling with their customers’ money? How much better for the customer, as opposed to the chief executive, are privatised utilities if they retain monopoly power? And how can public services replicate the degree of choice and personal attention that a market-based culture has come to expect? Most people in Britain have the unhappy feeling that they get a better deal in the things which matter less – holidays, restaurants, fashion chains – than they do in essential services like health and education.
The other problem is the direction of travel. Taxes are creeping back up. Anyone trying to set up or run a business in 2014 is far more hedged in by employment law, “equality”, “diversity”, health and safety, EU regulation than was his equivalent a quarter of a century ago. The restrictions on planning are so acute that businesses struggle to expand and we have the worst housing shortage ever. We need about 300,000 new homes a year and we are getting half that. This is an enormous restriction of the opportunity of the next generation by the older one.
Despite recent efforts by the Conservative leadership to identify with the strivers of this world, economic liberty is not nearly as central to their thinking as it was to Mrs Thatcher’s. They see it technocratically, as a useful instrument. She saw it, morally and politically, as lying at the heart of human worth. Without a comparably passionate vision, liberty will tend to decay. During the Thatcher era, her economic beliefs combined with the collapse of Soviet Communism, in which Ronald Reagan and she had such success, to change the movement of history. In her famous Bruges speech of 1988, she put it thus: “Freedom is on the offensive… for the first time in my lifetime”.
In the European Union today – it was Europe which was the subject of the Bruges speech – economic liberty is trussed up by rules and held hostage to the single currency. In the east of Europe, borders are being changed by force, arguably for the first time since the Second World War. In the Middle East, murderous fanatics who declaredly hate liberty are trying to set up an Islamic state. The United States is weaker than at any time since the late 1970s.
The number of democracies in the world, which grew all through the second half of the 20th century, has actually fallen in the 21st. Freedom is in retreat. High time, therefore, to give it some iron once again.