Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Margaret Thatcher and the lesson of free-market oppression

By Mike Tudoreanu

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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 [email protected]


11 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher and the lesson of free-market oppression”

  1. rbockman on April 10th, 2013 9:50 am

    both Thatcher and Pinochet were great leaders


  2. Leni on April 10th, 2013 3:37 pm

    Sure, rbockman, if you like mass-murders then Pinochet is a great leader. Lovely role model you have there.


  3. Dr. Ed Cutting on April 10th, 2013 3:55 pm

    Three things.
    First, have you ever read George Orwell’s _1984_?
    Orwell — a Socialist — wrote that in 1948 as a warning as to where he saw post-war Britain going, and he split from the Socialists when they proposed keeping wartime economic controls in place after war’s end. (Remember that much of London was in rubble and that other parts of the country hadn’t done so well either.)
    Second, do you have any idea what things were like in England in the late 1970’s? Much of the country only had electricity three days a week due to a different coal strike, other strikes were causing equal havoc, and there were serious questions about the survival of the nation.
    Third, and Thacher herself said it best:
    “The problem with Socialism is that sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.”
    Facts do matter.


  4. Leni on April 10th, 2013 10:05 pm

    By the way, Brassed Off is a great movie if interested about what happened with the coal miners in the North of England.


  5. Brian on April 11th, 2013 2:27 am

    Just in case anyone even thinks to bring up the tired old complaint that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead (which, funnily enough, never seems to apply to non-conservative politicians), here is what a Chilean-born British woman has to say about Maggie Thatcher (and her best friend, Pinochet):
    “Thousands of my people (and members of my family) were tortured and murdered under Pinochet’s regime — the fascist beast who was one of Thatcher’s closest allies and friend. So all you apologists/those offended [by my celebration] — you can take your moral high ground & shove it. YOU are the ones who don’t understand. Those of us celebrating are the ones who suffered deeply under her dictatorship and WE are the ones who cared. We are the ones who protested. We are the humanitarians who bothered to lift a finger to help all those who suffered under her regime. I am lifting a glass of champagne to mourn, to remember and to honour all the victims of her brutal regime, here AND abroad.”


  6. A reader on April 11th, 2013 4:13 am

    What were things like in Britain in the late 1970s? Better than in the 80s! British unemployment in the late 70s was at 4%, which they thought was high (because they compared themselves with West Germany’s 2%). But under Thatcher, unemployment skyrocketed to 12%, and it has never dropped below 4% since. Whoops. In Scotland, 20% – TWENTY PERCENT – of the population lost their jobs under Thatcher. That was such a terrible catastrophe that even today, the Conservative Party is a pariah in Scottish politics.
    Average house prices in the late 70s were about £ 12,000. Under Thatcher, they rose to over £ 50,000. In other words, she made it over FOUR TIMES more expensive for people to buy a new home. Have you ever tried to find a place to live in London these days? The prices are unbelievable. We have Thatcher to thank for that.
    As for the “electricity three days a week in the 70s” thing, that happened ONCE, in 1974, under the CONSERVATIVE government of Edward Heath (in which Thatcher was education minister, by the way). In fact, the Conservatives lost the elections that year for precisely this reason.
    …so yeah, facts do matter!


  7. Sarah on April 12th, 2013 6:35 am

    Another thing that you didn’t mention about Thatcher is how horrible she was for women’s rights. Some people think that if only we could get a woman in charge, that would somehow improve the lives of all women. Thatcher showed us a long time ago just how wrong that idea is. She made the pay gap between men and women increase significantly!


  8. That guy on April 12th, 2013 3:10 pm

    Apparently, after Thatcher died, the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” moved to first place in the UK iTunes store… lol.


  9. Gianna on April 17th, 2013 8:42 am

    Libertarianism is a set of related political philosophies that uphold liberty as the highest political end.[1][2] This includes emphasis on the primacy of individual liberty,[3] political freedom, and voluntary association. Libertarians advocate a society with a greatly reduced state or no state at all.[4]


  10. Sarah on April 18th, 2013 6:30 am

    …which may sound great until you start asking them exactly what they mean by “liberty.”

    Hint: they mean “I’m rich, I don’t want to pay taxes and I don’t give a damn about society, so you can GET THE F- OFF MY PROPERTY, you dirty commie!”


  11. ccd on April 30th, 2013 2:02 pm

    By every meaningful economic metric, the UK was left worse off by Thatcher. Higher unemployment, lower wages, lower GDP, lower social mobility, worse healthcare, higher homelessness, higher income and wealth disparity, the dismantling of much of the UK’s industry and manufacturing. And, she set the country up for failure later on with financial deregulation

    Forget all the ideological bs. An objective look at the data shows she was a dismal failure. Those are the facts. Good riddance to bad rubbish.


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