Thatcher the Libertarian?

ThatcherRexNilsJorgensen460When discussing the death of Lady Thatcher, there are a number of journalistic clichés that need be avoided. The usage of “divisive,” “controversial” and “polarizing” to describe her is the primary one, true though it may be. There is also a perceived need to note her humble origins, and her gender. It is taken as read that she is the darling of the political right and of the “aspirational” middle class while she is hated by socialists, trade unionists, and Scousers. But where do libertarians stand in relation to the Iron Lady? A number of articles have been penned in support of her by the right wing libertarian press, both in the Spectator, and in this very publication. 

 The Spectator’s Alex Massie notes the tension between the social conservatism and the economic liberalism which Thatcher championed. But Thatcher was not just a social conservative in the sense of Flag & Family (more on that later); she was also an authoritarian statist. She mobilised the full force of the state, usually in the form of the police, against near anything that she disagreed with: raves, gays, and miners. But before I get onto the obvious fights against liberty during her rule, I wish to critique the near-consensus view that all her economics were libertarian. 

influential libertarian blogger Sam Wells writes: “Real libertarians take individual rights seriously- seriously enough to consistently uphold them against the initiation of the use of force by anyone (including government) for any reason. This means that government […] has no business coercively interfering with the lives of peaceful (non-coercive) citizens in their private affairs and voluntary (market) relations.” Thatcher’s most popular policy among the Tories, breaking the influence of the unions, was a betrayal of libertarian values. A Libertarian perspective is that the trade unions (the democratic ones at least) represent a collective bargaining tool for the workers, who have the freedom over their own labour, and therefore the freedom to strike. I would add that if libertarianism is to be anything other than the ideology of the rich, then it must respect worker’s freedoms.

 Did Thatcher respect this freedom? She respected it by sending in the long, brutal arm of the state, the police, to assault those workers whose freedom interfered with her politics. Though many British libertarians feel instinctively closer to the Tory party than Labour or the Lib Dems (I am not one of them), I feel that at least some of the praise for her is down to this tribalism, and the polarisation she engendered. Her actions were not libertarian, as Alex Massie claims, but authoritarian and populist. She was not pushing through reforms out of a principled defence of freedom, nor did she commit to rolling back the state- indeed today’s Coalition has cut far more than she did. She instead represented a populist reaction against the post-war social democratic consensus; a consensus which gave trade unions a huge amount of power, and during which the philosophy of Marxism became popular among the British left. The British people were, largely, against the elitist unionists and their policies of industrial action, as well as opposing the radical communists, who appeared as Eastward-looking outsiders in their midst. 

Alex Nunns argues that she was not even a true monetarist: the privatised national industries, like Network Rail, is not a competitive free-market, but a state sanctioned monopoly, closer to Mussolini’s corporatism than Friedmanite monetarism.

Nevertheless, times have changed in the “Conservative” party, which is currently dominated by a liberal wing. Gay marriage would have been inconceivable under Thatcher’s government; indeed the infamous Section 28 made it illegal to even talk about homosexuality in schools. That infringement of a person’s freedom of expression goes beyond mere social conservatism, and leans closer to fascism than many dare admit. Centralised interventions in schools were widespread during her governments, and the national curriculum was developed for the first time. Stuart Hall describes her as an “authoritarian populist” who reacted against the miners with strike-breaking violence, the AIDs panic with Section 28, and the Acid House/rave movement with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Rave culture began during Thatcher’s reign, and was reportedly responsible for a reduction in violence on the streets (who wants to fight when you’re that high?), as well as introducing a generation to dance music.  A free marketer would have seized the opportunity to legalise and markets the rave experience, including its fuel of choice, Ecstasy, as well as Cannabis and other drugs. Instead Thatcher demonised and criminalised the party goers and drug users, showing her true colours as an authoritarian conservative reacting to moral panics. The tactics of the police were brutal, and infringed on fundamental freedoms like the freedom of association. 

What about her foreign policy? Well, she propped up the racist South African apartheid regime by refusing to boycott, famously referring to Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist,” yet she pled for mercy towards the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, robbing his victims of their justice. She even worked with the genocidal Khmer Rouge, preferring to deal with them over the Vietnamese. You can call this Real Politik, but whatever its name it is incompatible with a political philosophy like libertarianism, which strongly opposes violent, authoritarian, and anti-democratic regimes like those above.

Thatcher may have criticised the social democratic model, opened up the markets and improved Britain’s standing on the world stage. But it is not just her successes that she should be measured for, but her failings as well. To view her as a proto-libertarian or even a neo-liberal is narrow, to say the least. Authoritarianism is intrinsically opposed to libertarianism, whether the authoritarian believes in markets or not.

James Jackson is a 23 year old writer who recently finished his MA in Religion and Political Life. He lives in Manchester and intends to provide a left-libertarian perspective to The LP’s readers


  1. This reminds me of the admiral who, having a patch on one eye, clapped a telescope to it and declared ‘I see no ships!’. The unions, most of all and worst of all, Arthur Scargill, in charge of the miners, was a violent and destructive and deceptive Marxist who destroyed anything in his path, including elected governments such as Ted Heath’s. So, force for force, and the lesser of the evils please.

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