Wednesday 10 April 2013

Was Margaret Thatcher really English?

The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow – with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, ‘This isn't fair dealing’, my son, leave the Saxon alone.”

That is the start of the Kipling poem which Margaret Thatcher took with her to her first European summit, where she had resolved to batter the other European nations into giving Britain a rebate.

It shows just how much she was aware of herself as an Anglo-Saxon, and I must admit I rather admire her for it in retrospect. In retrospect, as Jonathan Calder said, I feel a little sad at the end of an era.  Though a few years ago, I cured myself of this sneaking feeling by opening a copy if her memoirs in a bookshop, and suddenly the full irritation with her aggressive ability to batter a handful of half-truths rushed back to me.

Yesterday, I blogged about one peculiar irony about her rule – how it had begun with the idea of a property-owning democracy yet sowed the seeds of a situation where nobody can afford to buy a home except the mega-rich.

But there is an even more fundamental paradox about the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and it was about how truly representative she was of those Anglo-Saxon values she claimed.

Because the actual direction of travel wasn't Anglo-Saxon self-determination and the apotheosis of small platoons at all.  It was a disastrous centralised rule from Whitehall, sometimes of the most corrosive and aggressive kind.

This was justified partly by contempt for local government, and perhaps an understandable rage at what the big cities had done to their own inner areas; also perhaps a determination to force the pace. The result was certainly a speedy pace, but also a legacy of learned helplessness by the cities, a damaging inability to make things happen, a horror of innovation and an abiding sclerosis where it really matters – at local level.

There is the great irony. She went into battle in defence of Anglo-Saxon values but ended up creating a Napoleonic state, in the image of the great centralised states of the continent – which, one by one, have seen the error of their ways and reformed. The UK has only just begun to fight its way out.

So two points here.  One is the Liberal approach: a revival of those very local institutions that she had so little time for, local organisations that can make things happen.

You can’t devolve power to individuals alone, because it doesn't work – they are too far form decision-making to use it, as the free schools are liable to find out. You need intermediary institutions, as numerous and as local as possible.  You also need powerful, ambitious and democratic local government.  The Conservative Party has still not learned that lesson and the vital importance of local institutions whether they are local banks or local hospitals.

The other point is that Mrs Thatcher never learned about the grammar of change. When you make things happen, you can often create an equal force in the other direction.  This is how William Morris put it:

"Men fight and lose the battle, and what they the thing that they thought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then turns out to be not what they wanted and has to be fought for again under another name.”
That is how things actually work and Margaret Thatcher never grasped it.  That is why Scottish devolution, for example, is part of her unexpected legacy.

So was she really an Anglo-Saxon?  Or was she actually a Bonaparte figure, a giant of Bismarckian dimensions, with an iron grip, dressed in the garb of King Alfred?

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