April 4, 2000

Margaret Thatcher and the Art of Being Wrong


I often read a lot of criticism of Margaret Thatcher and other honest Conservatives who disagree with us on intervening in other countries. This pains me, for I think that they are logically not really interventionists, it is old habits that dictate their warlike posture more than mental logic. I will leave out the Neo-Conservatives, that strange Manhattan cult of 15 (13 newspaper columnists among them) who talk of national greatness, moral purpose and John McCain. It’s best not to intervene with them. However, good (although imperfect) conservatives, whom Margaret Thatcher epitomises are worth saving. We must remember that these people are not evil, just out of date.


I will quickly go through Maggie’s record since the Cold War finished. On the one hand, she fearlessly promoted the cause of Senator Pinochet and the right of the Chilean people to decide their own balance between justice and peace. She is also almost the only major political figure who calls for withdrawal from the European Union. She offers hope to those of us who want to be shot of this ridiculous taboo on discussing the crucial issue – our sovereignty. On the other hand she opposed the re-unification of Germany against the wishes of the German people and she instilled the "backbone" into President Bush that led us to the disastrous Gulf War. She has consistently called for the West to act against the Serbs and has constantly called for the retention of NATO as a good in itself.


Let me declare an interest here. Throughout the 1980s, I was one of the many who opposed all that I thought she and her party stood for. I have now grown up. This means that my reactions to what she says is often tinged with guilt that on some of the biggest issues of the day, privatisation, deregulation, inflation and taxation. Her followers were right and people like me were wrong. How do I know that I am right this time?


The problem with any debate over the record of Margaret Thatcher was that she polarised debate so. Those who were for her regarded her as a saviour of a British state and economy that was rapidly sinking into third world levels of squalor. Those who were against her regarded her as a women who was prepared to ruthlessly impoverish large swathes of the country for the sectional advantage of her voters. Needless to say, both sides exaggerated more than was good for their credibility. However, there was, and is, no sizable middle ground – as is fairly clear I have not so much moderated as switched sides. Most British people are incapable of a rational debate on her merits.


The ironic point of Mrs. Thatcher’s hawkishness is that it was the non-interference principle in economics that revitalised conservative fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. This principle is not only valid for economics or as growing numbers of right-wingers now accept, society, but the logical result is non-intervention abroad, the very foreign policy that she opposes. It should be repeated again and again that the premise of non-socialist thought, the State is too big and stupid to predict and provide what people want to buy, also feeds through to foreign affairs. Attempts to force democracy, liberty and apple pie on other cultures will not work, as surely as five-year plans don’t.


The problem with Margaret Hilda, and the whole of her political generation was the legacy of the Cold War and the Second World War. Last week when I speculated on the future of NATO I was gently derided for believing that the Cold War was real. Well, I still believe it was real and what’s more I believe that we had to fight it and make some unsavoury allies. This does not mean that we need to keep them (or punish them – like Pinochet).


The European Union is a case in point. It is common for the Conservatives to wonder why they were the pro-European party throughout the Cold War period. I often wonder if they now realise that they were fighting the Cold War. The necessity of keeping the Germans, French and Italians on board meant that fairly intimate political cooperation was necessary. It is perfectly consistent being pro-European before (say) 1987 and anti-European after, if you believe that the Soviet Union was a greater threat. Criticism of Europe before the mid 1980s misses the point unless it can demonstrate that the USSR was no threat (only in East Germany for the beer) or the EU did not help the fight (France would always be rock solid). Neither argument convinces me. The case against the EU remains unaffected, it is an old ally and is unnecessary in the post-Soviet world. It is not needed. It credits Margaret Thatcher that she recognises this and shows a fundamental pragmatism.

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Emmanuel Goldstein

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Emmanuel Goldstein is the pseudonym of a political drifter on the fringes of English classical liberal and Euro-sceptic activity. He is a former member of the Labour Party, who knows Blair and some of his closest buddies better than they realise, yet. He has a challenging job in the real world, working for a profit-making private company and not sponging off the taxpayer in politics, journalism or the civil service. "Airstrip One," appears Wednesdays at Antiwar.com.

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In another area where the necessity before the Cold War is not the same as it is now, Margaret Thatcher is wrong. The need for an aggressive foreign policy is no longer needed. Being macho no longer shows a hostile power that you mean business, it merely irritates neutral powers into setting up hostile alliances. To forget this is to make the mistake that virtually all the War Party of the right make. Times do change, there is no need to support Contras, the South African regime or Iraq over Iran (and vice versa). These are in the past. The unlamented John McCain’s grotesque idea of "rogue state rollback" is the most blatant example of being unable to escape the Cold War.


The otherwise conservative souls who are for aggressive foreign policies are living a lie. Admittedly, it is a grotesque lie but like Lady Thatcher, they are good people. During the Cold War, it was necessary to be tough and aggressive, spending unsustainable amounts on foreign aid and fancy weapons systems. Nevertheless, it is the duty of anti-interventionist conservatives to show the rest of the right that we don’t need to worry about the Russian Bear. The Cold War is over. It’s time to return to our roots.

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