by Robert Henderson
With his mixture of vaulting intellectual ambition and howling mediocrity of mind, Lenin is the MaGonagal of philosophers. (Connoisseurs of intellectual incompetence and pretension should browse through Lenin’s ‘Materialism and Empririo-Criticism’ for an especial treat). Nonetheless, like Hitler, the man possessed a certain low animal cunning and a complete absence of moral restraint, which qualities permitted him to make a few acute psychological and sociological observations. Amongst these is the concept of the useful idiot.
For Lenin this was the role to be played primarily by simpleminded bourgeois dupes who unwittingly aided the movement towards the proletarian revolution, a revolution utterly antipathetic to the ideals and aspiration of the simpleminded bourgeois dupes. But the concept is of general political utility. The useful idiot is any person who acts in a way which unwittingly promotes political interests which are opposed to his own political ideals.
The best of all useful idiots are those in positions of the greatest political advantage, both because they have power and their propensity to be deluded by their egos into believing that they are utterly beyond manipulation or mistaken in their policies. They also display a serious want of understanding of the probable consequences of their actions.
It was this combination of circumstances and mentality which made Margaret Thatcher so potent a useful idiot in the liberal internationalist cause. As I wrote that last sentence, I saw rising up before me the opposing hordes of her admirers and haters, singularly united in a ghastly embrace of disbelief. Was she not the Iron Lady, the Hammer of the Left, the destroyer of union power, the slayer of the socialist dragon? Did she not speak of turning back the tide of immigrants? Was she not the rock from which the European Leviathan rebounded? Did she not ensure that Britain was respected in the world as she had not been since Suez? Was she not a mover and shaker in the nationalist cause?
In her own rhetorical world Mrs T was all of these things, a veritable Gloriana who enchanted some and banally persuaded many more, but in practical achievement she was none of them. This discrepancy between fact and fancy made her an extraordinarily potent tool for the soldiers of the ascendant ideology of the post-war period, the sordid bigotry that is liberal internationalism.
The hard truth is that she allowed the primary British political corruptions of the post war period – immigration, multiculturalism, “progressive” education, the social work circus, internationalism, the attachment to Europe – to not merely continue but grow vastly in scope during her period in power.
A harsh judgement? Well, at the end of her premiership what did Britain have to show for her vaunted patriotism, her wish to maintain Britain’s independence, her desire to drive back the state, her promise to end mass immigration? Precious little is the answer.
Her enthusiastic promotion of the Single European Act, which she ruthlessly drove through Parliament, allowed the Eurofederalists to greatly advance their cause under the guise of acting to produce a single market; her “triumph” in reducing our subsidy to Europe left us paying several billion a year to our European competitors whilst France paid next to nothing; our fishermen were sold down the river; farmers placed in the absurd position of not being allowed to produce even enough milk for British requirements; actual (as opposed to official) immigration increased; that monument to liberal bigotry, the Race Relations Act was untouched, the educational vandals were not only allowed to sabotage every serious attempt to overturn the progressive disaster, but were granted a great triumph in the ending of ‘O’ levels, a liberal bigot success amplified by the contemptible bleating of successive education secretaries that “rising examination success means rising standards”; foreign aid continued to be paid as an unforced Dangeld extracted from an unwilling electorate; major and strategically important industries either ceased to be serious competitors or ended in foreign hands; the armed forces were cut suicidally; the cost of the Welfare State and local government rose massively whilst the service provided both declined and Ulster was sold down the river with the Anglo Irish Agreement. Most generally damaging, she promoted internationalism through her fanatic pursuit of free trade.
At all points Britain was weakened as a nation. Such were the fruits of more than a decade of Thatcherism. Even those things which are most emblematic of her – privatisation, the sale of council houses and the subjection of the unions – have had effects which are contrary to those intended. Privatisation merely accelerated the loss of control which free trade engendered. We may as customers celebrate the liberation of British Telecom and BA, but is it such a wonderful thing to have no major car producer or shipbuilder? The trouble with the privatisation of major industries, which may be greatly reduced, go out of business or be taken over by foreign buyers, is that it ignores strategic and social welfare questions. Ditto free trade generally. Both assume that the world, or at least the parts which contain our major trading partners , will remain peaceful, stable and well disposed towards Britain for ever, an absurd assumption.
Margaret Thatcher also engaged in behaviour which led to a corruption of public life which undermined and continues to undermine her intended ends. Politicians should always think of what precedent they are setting when they act for bad precedents will be invariably seized upon by later governments. She consistently failed to address this concern. Take her attitude to privatisation and the unions. In the former case she displayed a contempt for ownership: in the latter she engaged in authoritarian actions which were simply inappropriate to a democracy. Such legally and politically cavalier behaviour has undoubtedly influenced Blair and New Labour, vide the contempt with which parliament is now treated, constitutional change wrought and incessant restrictions on liberty enacted.
There is a profound ethical question connected to privatisation which was never properly answered by Tories: what right does the state have to dispose by sale of assets which are held in trust on behalf of the general public and whose existence has been in large part guaranteed by taxpayer’s money? This is a question which should be as readily asked by a conservative as by a socialist for it touches upon a central point of democratic political morality, the custodianship of public property. The same ends – the diminution of the state and the freeing of the public from seemingly perpetual losses – could have been achieved by an equitable distribution of shares free of charge to the general public. This would have had, from a Thatcherite standpoint, the additional benefit of greatly increasing share ownership. By selling that which the government did not meaningfully own, she engaged in behaviour which if it had been engaged in by any private individual or company would have been described as fraud or theft.
The breaking of union power was overdone. As someone who is old enough to remember the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years, I have no illusion of exactly how awful the unions were when they had real power. But her means of breaking their abusive ways, particularly during the miners’ strike, were simply inappropriate in a supposed democracy. Passing laws restricting picketing and making unions liable for material losses suffered when they broke the rules were one thing: the using of the police in an unambiguously authoritarian manner in circumstances of dubious legality such as the blanket prevention of free movement of miners, quite another.
The Falklands War displays another side of her weakness in matching actions to rhetoric. Admirable as the military action was, the terrible truth is that the war need never have been fought if the government had taken their intelligence reports seriously and retained a naval presence in the area. The lesson went unlearnt, for within a few years of the recovery of the Falklands, her government massively reduced defence expenditure.
But what of her clients, the Liberal Ascendency? Would they not be dismayed by much of what she did? Well, by the time Margaret Thatcher came to power liberals had really lost whatever interest they had ever had in state ownership or the genuine improvement of the worker’s lot. What they really cared about was promoting their internationalist vision and doctrine of spurious natural rights. They had new clients; the vast numbers of coloured immigrants and their children, women, homosexuals, the disabled. In short, all those who were dysfunctional, or could be made to feel dysfunctional, in terms of British society. They had new areas of power and distinction, social work, education, the civil service ,the mass media to which they added, after securing the ideological high ground, the ancient delights of politics.
Although the liberal left distrusted and hated Margaret Thatcher (and did not understand at the time how effective her commitment to free trade was in promoting internationalism), they nonetheless had the belief throughout her time in office that Britain’s involvement in the EU and the Liberal Ascendency’s control of education, the media, the civil service and bodies such as the Commission for Racial Equality would thwart those of her plans which were most dangerous and obnoxious to the liberal.
Margaret Thatcher greatly added to this wall of opposition by her choice of ministers. Think of her major cabinet appointments. She ensured that the Foreign Office remained in the hands of men (Howe and Hurd) who were both ardent Europhiles and willing tools of the FO Quisling culture, the Chancellorship was entrusted to first Howe and then Lawson who was also firmly committed to Europe. The Home Office sat in the laps of the social liberals Whitelaw, Hurd and Baker, Education was given to Baker and Clarke. Those appointments alone ensured that little would be done to attack the things which liberals held sacred, for they were men who broadly shared the liberal values and who were opposed to Thatcherite policies other than those on the economy, which of course was the one Thatcherite policy guaranteed to assist liberal internationalism. By the end, she was so weak that she was unable to prevent the effective sacking of a favourite cabinet minister, Nicholas Ridley, by the German Chancellor.
The constant cry of Margaret Thatcher after she left office is that she did not understand the consequences of her acts. Of course she does not put it in that way, but that is what it amounts to. She blames Brussels and the Foreign Office for the unwelcome consequences of the Single European Act. She readily admits that this minister or that in her government proved unreliable or treacherous, but does not conclude that her judgement in choosing them was at fault. She blames the Foreign Office for the Falklands War. But nowhere does she acknowledge her fault.
In her heart of hearts, has the second longest serving and most ideological prime minister in modern British history ever comprehended, however imperfectly, that she was a prime mover in the Liberal Internationalist cause? I doubt it, because self deception is at the heart of what makes a useful idiot.