Margaret Thatcher: the most useful of idiots

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.

28 responses to “Margaret Thatcher: the most useful of idiots

  1. Wow, what a remarkable stream of verbal vomit.

  2. Well, I think Robert has got it generally right on the old dear. Many of us projected our hopes onto her. Not surprisingly, she jollied us along with a few smiles and coded words of encouragement, and continued about her main business of making the country into a corporatist police state.

  3. Hmm. I think the general thrust of the argument is reasonable though I disagree with quite a lot of the specifics. I think Thatcher had two problems; the first was that her conservatism blinded her to the more fundamental problems in the British polity. Like most conservatives, her mental model was one of a basically good “traditional” system, with an overlay of nasty socialism that needed to be peeled off to reveal the goodness beneath. She was incapable of seeing the systemic problems in the Victorian Political And Social Dispensation that had led us to ruin.

    The second was the failure, as pointed out in the article, that the Left programme is far more broad than bolshie trade unionists quoting Marx and had already, by the time of her ascendence to the purple, returned to being the predominantly cultural programme of utopian socialists after its dalliance with Marxist economic theory. By really only understanding liberalism in terms of Hayek, she was answering the situation of the 1930s, not the 1970s, so saw it all in terms of economic communism, rather than teacher training colleges preaching Gramsci and Althusser. The Enemy was the New Left, and she was fighting the Old.

    Still, at least she tried. We should treat her failures as instructive data. Failure is useful in telling one what not to do next time.

  4. C H Ingoldby

    Margaret Thatcher worked hard at fighting and driving back the Left. There were lots of things she didn’t do and there were lots of mistakes, but she achieved more good in one day than Robert Henderson will achieve in his lifetime.

    Still, let the dogs bark, the caravan still moves on.

  5. Pingback: Randoms « Foseti

  6. I read as far as the justification for quoting Lenin. You don’t need to justify quoting anyone. A huge spiel making clearly you have sound views on Lenin, but are apologetically quoting him, is unnecessary. I didn’t read any further. That’s the problem with the Internet – non-peer-reviewed writing.

  7. C H Ingoldby

    For someone to claim to be a Libertarian and then criticise Margaret Thatcher because she allowed people to buy their own council houses and because she roled back State ownership of industry and because she encouraged free trafe isn’t a Libertarian. That person is actually a socialist who is trying to attack and sabotage Libertarianism.

    Or else they are just seriously confused and mentally retarded.

  8. “Or else they are just seriously confused and mentally retarded.”

    Projection much?

  9. Rather well “peer-reviewed” by Ian B, I think.

    In any event, politics being the art of the possible, Thatcher was the best choice available at the time.

  10. Thatcher allowed people to buy their own council houses?

    Since when did Thatcher come to own council houses?

    Thatcher forced Local Authorities to sell their property at below market prices, and tie up the proceeds in long-term Government bonds. No new houses were built, leading inexorably to a shortage of rented housing.

    If Thatcher had simply given the properties to their existing occupants as The Economist suggested, the results would have been better.


  11. Margaret Thatcher allowed council tenants to buy their homes because she was the Prime Minister and was in a position to pass laws giving them that right. Simple really.

    Lots of new houses were built during her period of government.

    And giving away the council houses would have a daft idea in terms of basic justice as well as economics.

    Still, we know not to expect any sense from you Horlicks, just rehashed lefty pieties. It is odd that you choose to frequent this Libertarian blog considering your lefty attitudes.

  12. Tony Hollick: the question of ownership goes to the heart of it. The property was not owned by the government but the nation. Thatcher was like a conman selling the Houses of Parliament or Nelson’s Column to unsuspecting tourists. She even used the conman’s trick of selling well below market value.

  13. CH Ingolby : since when has it been libertarian to sell someone else’s property and to sell it at a reduced price?

    As for house building in the 1980s, council house building ground to a halt and has been tiny ever since and much of the new developments were small flats for private buyers and buy-to-let merchants which were often built to very basic specifications, unlike social housing.

    While all this was going on, Thatcher was content to give a massive subsidy to home buyers through MIRAS (another clear breach of her supposedly free market credentials) whilst raising the rents of social housing tenants. Strangely, the laissez faire disciples never complained about that.

    More broadly, Thatcher was, as the laissez faire routinely do, more than content to allow all the other massive breaches of markets such as limited liability, patents, copyright and trademarks to continue.

  14. C H Ingoldby

    Henderson, since when has it been Libertarian for the State to own and control a huge part of all the houses in the country?

    Margaret Thatcher did an excellent thing rolling back the State in selling off the council houses. To criticise that because it wasn’t done in a completely ideologically perfect fashion is utterly pathetic carping from the sidelines.

    Margaret Thatcher did great things and you whine because she was not completely perfect. That really is pathetic.

  15. The State can do what it likes, since it has absolute power. It can sell things or give them away or raffle them.

    But there is a precedent that “public goods” are owned by the State as a distinct entity; hence the sale of ex-civil service furniture, old battleships, etc. A logical justification for this is that if the State is selling a battleship for a convenient £60M, all 60M of us “own” it via the State. For it to be transferred to one specific person, that person must buy out all the rest of our hypothetial “shares” in it. The money goes into the communal pot.

    Hence, the sale of old filing cabinets, battleships and council houses.

  16. C H Ingoldby

    For some reason Henderson thinks it is Libertarian to complain because that Margaret Thatcher didn’t allow the State to build even more Council houses. He seems to think it is Libertarian to believe that the State should build and own and allocate housing.

    What was that about ‘useful idiots’?

  17. C H Ingoldby – It isn’t the state which owns council houses, but the people of Britain. Strange that a man who claims to be an arch libertarian makes the error of thinking that the state owns anything in a country where governments are supposedly the servants not masters of the people.

    As for whether such goods should be held in common, communal action is at the heart libertarianism, for libertarianism requires it in the absence of state intervention.

  18. Ian B – the state cannot legally do just what it wants in a country such as Britain which has a government as a servant not a master and is under the rule of law.

    In countries which have written constitutions the legal restrictions of government are much greater.

    Even in countries which have harsh dictatorships there are limits to what the state may do because civil unrest or outright rebellion acts as a check.

  19. Henderson, the State is a reality and as such it does own things, whether we like it or not. For you to claim otherwise is an interesting insight into your Marxist worldview.

    For you to criticise Margaret Thatcher for not wanting the State to build, own and allocate even more housing is not a Libertarian criticism, it is a straightforward socialist criticism. You pretend to criticise Margaret Thatcher for not being Libertarian enough, when actually all your criticisms are coming from a Marxist/socialist perspective.

    I wonder if you are simply highly confused or are actually as intellectually dishonest as I suspect?

  20. CH Ingolby : The state exists but not all states are the same. In a country such as Britain the state, at least in theory, is severely limited. The state owns nothing. It merely holds in trust and adminsters things for the community.

    Are you claiming that nothing should be held in common? There should be no armed forces held in common? There should be no fires service held in common? There should be no reserves of oil held in common?

  21. Robert, the State in Britain is Constitutionally entirely unlimited, which is why the Americans did not copy our constitutional structure for their federal government; they limited their government by a Constitution that stands above it, and limits its actions (at least in theory). Here, there is no such document or system. Any constitutional arrangements and laws are “latest takes precedence” rather than “highest takes precedence”, such that any law passed which conflicts with a former law or constitutional arrangement is considered to supercede it.

    The Parliament is considered to be exercising the monarch’s (“despotic”) rule. It can do anything it can bring itself to vote for, and there is no constitutional check on that. The parliament is sovereign. The British State has no theoretical bounds upon it. It is most definitely not “in theory, severely limited”. The parliamentary system developed in Britain is the very model of an unlimited government.

  22. Henderson, if you want to argue that State ownership of peoples houses is a good thing then please bugger off to LabourList or some other socialist site.

    The State building, controlling and allocating housing is grossly unlibertarian socialism. As I suspect you are fully aware.

  23. I picked up the idea of the Council Houses being given to their tenants from “The Economist” way back in the Seventies.

    Does anyone seriously suggest that “The Economist” is socialist?


  24. Not socialist, just wrong on that one.

    Just as it was wrong on ERM and EMU.

  25. Ian B…. There are legal bars to what the state may do, for example, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Succession, the Parliament Act. Moreover, although it is true that Parliament can make what laws it wants, while it does not give either itself or the Government permission to do things, then the Government is bound by whatever the law is. For example, Parliament has to sanction the public expenditure resulting from a budget by passing a finance Act. If a government wishes to change the term of a parliament from 5 years maximum to three it must get its leguislation through Parliament.

    In addition to legal bars, the power of customary restraints is powerful in a country with elections and a media which can question government. For example, although the PM may exercise the Prerogative freely in theory, it is not invariably used in important matters, for example, declaring war or making treaties.

    Finally, there is the power of Treaty obligations such as those which bind us to the EU. These could be repudiated but while they are not cast aside Parliament and Government are bound hand and foot.

  26. C H Ingolby: you still haven’t cottoned on: the state owns nothing in Britain. Selling the public utilities etc was the most successful con trick in history: Thatcher sold what the people already owned to the people. RH

  27. Henderson, When the State owns Housing, the Utilities and major industres, to say that the ‘people’ own them is moronic. That is to swallow the guff that the ‘people’ owned everything in the Soviet Union.

    You are a socialist. You think that State ownership of housing is a good thing. Libertarians do not.

    And you are completely wrong on the legalities of what restraints there are on the State. In Britain, Parliament is not constrained by past laws, it may overturn or amend any existing laws and make any new laws it wishes. That is the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy.

    So, you are a socialist who tries to lecture us on constitutional law and just gets it wrong. A shame, now please bugger off to Labourlist with your fellow Leftists.

  28. CH Ingoldby – If you want to be pedantic about the powers of Parliament you need to get your facts right. Parliament, contrary to popular belief, is not sovereign. That is because the prerogative is still intact and the monarch could in theory veto any Bill passed by Parliament by the simple expedient of refusing her assent.

    As for me being a socialist, you need to understand that communal ownership and action does not = socialism. Socialism is a deliberate policy of state control and ownership based on an over arching ideology which favours state control over private initiative. If communal action and wonership were top be the touchstone for socialism every developed country would have tio be described as socialist because they all have welfare states.

    I describe myself as a social liberatarian which means I see the state needs to set rules and create circumstances which prevent a plutocracy emerging whilst permitting individuals generally to live lives which are neither hindered unduly by state interference nor the oppression of the rich over the poor.