Margaret Thatcher is dead. To many Americans, especially the youth, her name probably means nothing. After all, how is a British prime minister from the 1980s relevant to us, or to the world, today? She is relevant because of the historical lesson she provides about the relationship between free-market ideals, repression and dictatorship. But understanding that lesson requires a bit of historical context.
In Britain, Thatcher’s death has produced intense reactions. The conservative government has praised her legacy, issued gushing eulogies and plans to hold a state funeral next week. Meanwhile, on the day her death was announced, spontaneous street parties erupted in working-class neighborhoods and industrial towns. Calls to “respect the dead” were met with the answer that Thatcher never respected the people who suffered or died as a result of her policies.
That is what Thatcher is best remembered for: ruthlessly imposing a brand of free-market extremism on her country with absolutely no apologies for destroying people’s lives, and getting away with it. By doing this, she opened the door for legions of admirers and imitators across the English-speaking world to follow in her footsteps. Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the Tea Party would not be where they are today if Thatcher had not shown them the way.
Thatcher’s way was paved with the same kind of sociopathic libertarianism that drives the far-right fringe of the Republican Party today. Before she became prime minister, she made a name for herself by eliminating a program that used to provide free milk for primary school children. When asked if society should care for the unfortunate, Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society.” On a previous occasion, she interrupted a speaker who had been calling for moderate conservatism by pulling a book out of her bag, slamming it on the table and proclaiming “This is what we believe!” The book’s author was Friedrich Hayek, one of the great ideologues of libertarianism.
Hayek’s ideas inspired Thatcher’s policies. Before Thatcher, Britain was a social democratic welfare state, with strong unions, a large degree of economic equality, a robust system of universal health care and free public education, subsidized housing for the poor (known as “council housing”) and many state-owned industries that provided services at low prices: British Railways, British Telecom, British Gas, British Steel, British Airways, as well as electricity and water companies. Thatcher changed all that.
Under the guise of promoting home ownership, Thatcher forced local councils to sell off existing council houses and banned the construction of new ones. She also decided that the money from the sales would go to the central government, rather than staying at the local level. When local authorities protested, Thatcher ruthlessly silenced them. She even went so far as to abolish the Greater London Council – effectively breaking up London into a multitude of administrative mini-cities – in order to neutralize her left-wing opponents. Predictably, the result of all this was a chronic shortage of housing for the poor. But Thatcher got what she wanted: as the newly privately-owned homes entered the market, they were able to support a stock market bubble that increased the wealth and power of the banking industry.
Next, following her doctrine that private industry is always better than public industry, Thatcher privatized most of the state-owned companies mentioned above, with disastrous results for their workers and customers. Workers were laid off, wages were cut and prices rose as the new private owners turned public services into profit-making operations.
In response, British workers and unions rose up to fight Thatcher’s government. Union membership was at an all-time high in the late 1970s in Britain, with union members representing almost 25 percent of the population. Thatcher famously referred to them – the workers who kept Britain running – as “the enemy within.” They responded to her drive to lower their wages and eliminate their jobs by starting a wave of strikes. The most militant of all were the coal miners in the north of England, who went on a long strike in 1984-85 in order to fight back against Thatcher’s attempt to close 20 mines and cut 20,000 jobs.
But the miners did not expect the brutality of Thatcher’s reaction. She sent the police to physically beat them into submission. And because she was worried that local police might be unwilling to turn against their own neighbors, she bolstered their numbers with squads from the Metropolitan Police in London. There are even reports – always denied by the government – that Thatcher also used soldiers in police uniform to suppress the strike. In the end, over eleven thousand miners were arrested, and the strike was defeated.
Thatcher ruled in the name of Hayekian libertarianism, which claimed that free market policies are necessary to preserve civil liberties and a free society. But this was a lie, and Thatcher’s own actions are the best example of the magnitude of the lie. In the name of the free market, people were beaten in the streets.
And Thatcher herself never made an effort to hide her admiration for dictators and their methods. She was a friend of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, who radically privatized everything in the Chilean economy – even social security – and killed tens of thousands of people. In a private letter, Thatcher lamented that “in Britain, with our democratic institutions and the need for a higher degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable … At times, the process may seem painfully slow.” General Suharto, the dictator of Indonesia, who massacred over a million people, was called by Thatcher “one of our very best and most valuable friends.” Meanwhile, according to Thatcher, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist.
This brings us to Thatcher’s great lesson for us. Her free-market policies made the rich richer and the poor poorer, and caused widespread anger and discontent. How does a government stay in power and continue with its policies in the face of popular anger? By using fraud, intimidation and force. A government that sides with the rich against working people must do what Thatcher did. It must suppress elected bodies that voice dissent, it must react violently to protests and strikes and it must rely on the friendship of foreign dictators. This is the only way to rule once you’ve decided that ordinary people are “the enemy within.” This is the only way that a radical free-market government could ever rule. This is the true face of libertarian “freedom.”
Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.