A brief comment on Margaret Thatcher

Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, I am seeing a lot of comments like this one from David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham. I find them baffling. At the risk of Godwin’s wrath, let’s try an experimental rewording:

Regardless of whether you agreed or disagreed with his analysis, he certainly stood up for what he believed in – he certainly got something done. He had guts and conviction – qualities which are much needed today.

Nobody needs to tell me how divisive his politics were on the ground. Poland in 1939 was often not a fun place to be. Yet nobody can deny that he had a vision, as well as the strength and courage to see that vision become a reality. Those qualities are to be admired, regardless of the disagreements we may rightly have with the effects of his policies on the people we stand up for.

Am I saying that Margaret Thatcher was as bad as Hitler? No I am not. But I fail to see how the appalling destruction brought about by her policies is to be overlooked because she stuck to her guns. And if we are going to give her a free pass for that reason, it seems only fair to do the same for Hitler.

Update (three hours layer)

As usual, Andrew Rilstone has said it better (and more briefly) than me:


32 responses to “A brief comment on Margaret Thatcher

  1. Wow. A post that tiptoes on the line of me deleting your blog from my feed reader.

    Margaret Thatcher is nowhere fucking near being evil in proportions anywhere close to the league of Hitler.

    You certainly did Godwin the hell out of this….

  2. Oh! You’re right! Now I come to think of it, Margaret Thatcher was not as bad as Hitler! If only I’d thought to plainly and clearly state that right in the blog.

  3. well you sort of *are* saying she was as bad as Hitler. But that aside – I think the Labour MP you quoted put forwards a pretty reasonable and decent opinion. It’s one of the more mature things I’ve seen written today. You also cite ‘the appalling destruction’ wrought by her policies as if that’s an unarguable position – not an uncommon viewpoint on the left – she’s just plain evil and that’s an end to it etc. etc. Credit people who disagree with you on that one as not being intensely insane. Some of her policies haven’t had entirely positive outcomes with 30 years of highsight – but its quite possible leaving things as they were would have been much worse. I think it’s a rather more free-ranging and nuanced political debate than you suggest – but obviously a bit of a big topic for a comments section on your site. However, in defence of the politician you quote – I think he could be interpreted as saying “She had a set of policies she believed in, *that didn’t involve slaughtering millions of Jewish people*, that she was duly elected to enact *without basing her campaign on the slaughter of millions of Jewish people*, which she had the strength to get through a weak cabinet *not made up of people who wanted to see the slaughter of millions of Jewish people* despite a great many self interested departments and obstructive slow moving bureaucracy in a bankrupt country with powerful vested *not specifically Jewish* interests ranged against her.” I think that would be a fairer, implicit, reading of his point – and your taking it to the ad absurdum in order to suggest that being a strong willed effective (for whatever value you place on her effects) leader in the UK in 1980 is in *any way* similar to being a strong willed but also insane fascist Austrian in 1940 keen on slaughtering the innocent is.. perhaps… hyperbole. :-) These are two rather different interpretations of the phrase “strong willed”! Believe me – I do understand your point – but it’s akin to responding to statement a) “that Debbie, she’s a strong willed girl, got to love her for it. Stubborn as a mule, bless her” with retort b) “So was Hitler! He was strong willed too! You fascist scum!” :-) Much love, Robin.

  4. Well you sort of *are* saying she was as bad as Hitler.

    Well, now I am completely baffled.

    Help me out here. What else should I have written, beyond “Am I saying that Margaret Thatcher was as bad as Hitler? No I am not” (in bold), to convey the fact that I am not saying she was as bad as Hitler? Obviously that statement wasn’t sufficiently clear. What would have been?

  5. Mentioning she wasn’t as bad as Hitler immediately after comparing her to Hitler, struck me as being like people who use the phrase “with all due respect”. In most cases they really mean, with no respect at all.

    The vilification of our political opponents is a huge stumbling block in political discourse these days. Comments like the MP made are actually bright spots in that discourse that show respect for the person even if you disagree with their opinions. It shows realization that in most cases that aren’t extreme outliers (see Hitler) political opponents on both sides of an issue are actually both fairly decent human beings. I had to add the fairly because, well, we’re talking about politicians here…

  6. @jwerpy, @Robin Jubber
    I think you should start working on your reading skills.
    And if it happens that you really don’t understand what Mike says, perhaps you should read Bruce Lawson’s post.

  7. All right, jwerpy. On the charitable assumption that you really don’t understand, I will try once more.

    We know from the example of Hitler (and many other examples) that mere strength of convictions does not excuse damage done — indeed it often makes it worse. When applying this general principle to Thatcher, we see that the mere strength of her convictions does not excuse the damage that she did — indeed, it made it worse. This being so, it is very strange that even those (like Labour MPs) who agree with me that she did damage are talking as though the strength of her convictions was in itself admirable.

    Clear enough for you?

  8. BTW., anyone who’s not seen these hagiographic tributes, check out the live stream of them from the Guardian — a left-leaning newspaper that one would expect to be less sympathetic than most of the press.

  9. ah galewa – an ad hominem attack to kick things off eh? Right after jwerpy’s well written comment too. Tsk. Try harder. Dear Mike Taylor – although I can’t speak for jwerpy’s initial response to your initial article – I think (s)he and I are both in agreement about our response to your phrasing. Yes – it’s quite clearly marked in bold where you state you’re not comparing Thatcher to Hitler – but stating it doesn’t matter if you are, basically, making the comparison. Please note – making a comparison is the not the same as saying Thatcher *is* Hitler. You’ve used Hitler and Thatcher in the same argument. Really that’s a comparison. Semantics aside, that’s how it ends up reading. Also, because you’ve used Hitler as the ad absurdum omega point of your reply to the politician’s commentary, you devalue your initial (not entirely unreasonable) point that being a strong willed leader may not be a good thing in of itself. However that’s a fairly uncontroversial statement. You then follow up your point by suggesting that it is a fait accompli that Thatcher’s policies were appallingly destructive. That’s not terribly insightful or balanced political commentary – even if you feel it to be ‘true’ – these are the words I might use to describe wandering into Poland with an army, or the Burmese junta’s approach to democracy, or celtic land clearances, or the effects of segregation in the Deep South. After the ‘non-comparison’ with Hitler, it makes your argument seem as balanced as a fat man on a see-saw. However, all this aside, I continue to enjoy your blog – as it still appears to be able to stir an interesting debate. I wish you sir, a good afternoon. :-)

  10. I am going to stop explaining my perfectly simple post now. I think at this point, anyone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it because they have decided not to get it, and there is no point in explaining things further.

  11. Robin Jubber; nice post


    Also, want to say I enjoy the blog too. Just like the Dr. Who bits more than than the political bits ;-)

  12. 261 posts so far on this blog; 11 of them about politics. That’s 4.21%.

  13. I fail to see the “appalling destruction brought about by her policies”, period. From where I sit, the UK was on the fast track to total economic collapse, and she reversed it. At least temporarily.

    If you need to compare her to anyone, compare her to Arthur – who didn’t prevent the collapse of civilization, but did manage to hold it off for a generation. Which is about as much as could be expected, given the times we live in.

  14. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or not that her policies are destructive. The point is that a Labour MP, who presumably does agree, is nevertheless toeing the “but at least she had the strength of her convictions” line. That is dumb. If someone is opposed to me, I don’t want him or her to have strong convictions. I want them to be susceptible to rational argument. In effect Lammy is praising her for paying no attention to opposing views.

  15. What you’re missing is that her opponents didn’t have rational arguments. They just had an unfounded belief that the destructive policies that had gotten the UK into that mess would somehow begin to work, in some mystical fashion, if only they kept at it long enough and hard enough.

    Her great sin was her failure to participate their mass delusions.

  16. “the UK was on the fast track to total economic collapse, and she reversed it.”

    Boy, it’s a good job we got out of that and developed the robust economy we have today, isn’t it?

  17. Well, we could have a debate about the efficacy or otherwise of Thatcher’s economic policies. Feel free, in fact (though I don’t plan to join in). But that is really not related to my point, which is that even her political enemies are now forgiving (what they at least perceive as) her massive failures on the grounds of her even more massive failures.

    It’s sort of like the way people accept Windows because it’s appalling weaknesses make people overlook how bad its merely terrible weaknesses are.

  18. You mean like the way that it took Windows 95 two years to discover that it had a bug that would make it crash after 49 days of up-time, because it had so many other bugs that it would almost always crash for some other reason before it got that far?

    (And as for complaints about our current “robust” economy, they only come from people who don’t remember just how truly dismal the seventies were.)

  19. jdege, “her opponents didn’t have rational arguments”

    Really? In eleven years not one of her opponents ever had a rational argument? Not a single one of her advisers or cabinet ever came to her with reasoned arguments against the policies of covering up police violence (“maybe this is a terrible idea,” for example)? Even if they didn’t, refusing to listen to the arguments and particularly evidence that is presented to you is not a positive quality. In the UK we have a strange aversion to leaders who change their minds, but when you are heading in the wrong direction refusing to turn is the sign of a fool. A strong minded fool, a decisive fool and a fool who can stand as an example to fools for years to come. A fool who would, no doubt, show people today what a real fool does.

    “The lady’s not for turning,” should not be seen as something that a great leader would say.

  20. Strong agreement here. Much as I loathe the elitism and sheer unkindness of the current Conservative government, it makes me want to tear my hair out every time Labour jeer at them for making a “U-turn”, which in fact is a proper recognition that there is no popular mandate for a policy they had intended to enact. Seriously: changing your mind on (say) charitable donation limits is a good thing. We want a government that listens to the governed. And yet Every. Single. Time the government does this, our sorry excuse for an opposition rams home the macho message that it’s politically better to be bull-headedly wrong than to admit to a mistake.

    And the obvious outcome of this has of course been the enactment of the massively unpopular new benefit cuts, which the Tories wouldn’t dare change their minds on now, having been taught that to do so attracts contempt rather than mere hatred.

    Honestly. I just want to bang their heads together.

  21. http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/344979/thatcher-was-right-left-was-wrong-kevin-d-williamson

    “In that sense, we should be grateful to the odious likes of Ted Rall and Donna Brazile. As the treacly and insincere tributes from the likes of Barack Obama roll in, we should remember: They hated Margaret Thatcher. Hated her. Reviled her. Hated everything she stood for. Still do. So I do not really want to hear any tributes to her from the left side of the political aisle today. If you were not around at the time, it will be hard for you to appreciate the vulgarity and the cruelty of the attacks to which she was subjected. They hated her for the same reason they hated Reagan: She aimed to defeat socialism abroad and socialism at home, appreciating the structural continuity between domestic socialism and the idea’s full expression under the Soviets.

    As we celebrate the remarkable life of Margaret Thatcher, it is fitting that we remember the most important aspect of it: She won, and she deserved to win. Those who opposed her and reviled her were on the wrong side of the most important question of their age, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with tyrants, many of them as guilty as those who manned the gulag watchtowers. And even today, when they make their pilgrimages to sit at the feet of Castro or bury Chávez, when they put leftist terrorists on their payrolls, they know: They lost. What they do not know, because they are incapable of understanding the fact, is that they deserved to lose. We should not allow them to pretend that they were on the right side all along.”

  22. Guys, Mike is using a very familiar rhetorical device in his post. It’s when you take an argument to its logical conclusion in order to magnify and expose its inherent lack of logic. Consequently, not only is he not saying that Thatcher was like Hitler, his whole point rests on the notion that it should be hard to find points of comparison between them – so any statement which fits them together is most likely pretty specious. I could write a blog post where I argued Thatcher and Hitler were both bipedal life forms. But that would be pretty much a waste of my time and yours as nobody really doubted that to start with.
    I can remember the Seventies, Jedge, thanks for asking. I mostly remember the wealth gap being smaller, social mobility still existing, jobs being relatively secure, people being comparatively better paid despite working shorter hours than we do now, and the way you could get unemployed, sick or old without having to worry too much about how you’d get by. On the other hand, some of those fashions were a bit daft. Bell bottoms, I hope they never come back.

    I also remember the deep recessions of the early Eighties and Nineties that would seem to have glided past others. But by common agreement the current downturn is the worst in post-war history. And it was precipitated by the deregulation of finance that begun under Thatcher. (And continued under Neo Labour it’s true, but that’s to their detriment not to her credit.)

    In essence, the banks lent out money that wasn’t there on the basis that they could always pass the parcel to some patsy if things went belly up. Finally it became clear everybody had been doing this to a ludicrous degree, and it was like that scene where Wily Coyote looks down and realises he’s stepped off a cliff. Our current economic woes are not the direct fault of Thatcher, like some smoking gun, but they’re the inevitable result of what was commonly called Thatcherism.
    You should not, of course, use the worst practitioners of an argument to claim it is weak or invalid. Yet I have to say these pro-Thatcher arguments seem typical. Vague assertions that “everybody knows” things are better now, an insistence that others have “no arguments” rather than making arguments of your own, repetition of phrases “the Seventies” or “gulags” like that proves something or other. All I can say is that I remember things before, during and after Thatcher. And before was better.
    I’d recommend the recent film ‘Spirit of 45’ as a whistestop tour of everything that was gained in Britain in the post-war era, and how it all started to be lost again from the Eighties on.

  23. I just want to +1 Gavin’s comment — he’s said basically everything I would have said here.

    Those who are now singing Thatcher’s praises are largely doing so on the basis that the changes she instituted were never undone. That much is true. The relentless erosion of compassion in the way the state is run, the ever-increasing trend towards favouring the already-rich, and indeed the simple contempt of normal people that we see in the current government (Osborn in the disabled bay and suchlike) are all direct outcomes of a trend that she initiated. She made it not just acceptable but fashionable to be mean in politics — spitefulness masquerading as hard-headedness. Her attitude to the Hillsborough disaster was absolutely of a piece with the rest of her career.

    When I went to university in 1986, I got a £2000-per-year grant, which was enough to live on (frugally) back then, thanks to cheap university accommodation. My eldest son is fifteen. When he goes off in three years’ time, he will pay £9000 a year for the privilege. Having been brought up in working-class family where there was never any money to spare it’s simply inconceivable that I would have gone to university had the current situation pertained then. How many other bright but under-resourced working-class kids are now missing out? Meanwhile, the relentless erosion of academic standards means that even the most mediocre student can now obtain a degree so long as he has the money to pay for it. It’s a catastrophic system and one that could not more emphatically reinforce existing privilege had it been designed to do so. All of that comes down to us from the days of Thatcherism.

    She was a disaster for 90% of the country. A disaster.

  24. You clearly feel very strongly about this, but I think you are misrepresenting the current situation re tertiary education. First, it was Labour (under Blair) not Thatcher who devised the policy that 50% of school-leavers should go to university, so if you wanted to trace any decline in academic standards to a specific primary cause you might find that an interesting starting place. Second, your point about working-class families not being able to afford tertiary education is so far from the truth that you must have been misinformed. Yes your old grant has been replaced by a loan – but that’s a simple response to the fact that so many people are going to university now that its not possible to provide a grant to everyone (in fact the recent trebling of fees was almost entirely due to the government cutting central funding to universities). The important point is that this loan is available to everybody and – crucially – what you repay (if anything) will depend on your future earnings. In other words, those who do well from their degree will pay back more than those who do not. This is hardly designed to ’emphatically reinforce existing privilege’. Quite the opposite in fact: it is designed to share the burden of education costs proportionally according to each individual’s ability to pay. And if you earn less than £21,000 p.a. you will never pay back a single penny. (This means you should think very hard before deciding to pay tuition fees up-front, rather than taking a loan – you could be substantially worse off in the long run)

    Regarding Thatcher generally though, I prefer to keep my own counsel. The situation during the 80’s was much more complex than many commentators care to account for. However, in one point I find myself in complete agreement with you: Thatcher’s statement “There is no such thing as society” was a disaster for the country, from which we have not recovered. I am working at the moment in Norway where the social contract is very much alive and well. Crime is almost non-existent and there is no real unemployment. Of course Norway is reaping huge benefits from its oil and gas industry but a burger-flipper in Bergen gets paid almost the same as an orthopaedic surgeon in Oslo, and as a result can afford an apartment and an annual holiday. In Norway the interests of society as a whole generally take precedence over the interests of the individual, and it seems that this is accepted by the average Norwegian as self-evidently true rather than being imposed on him against his nature.

  25. First, Vince, remember that this is an offshoot of the main discussion. The thing I really felt strongly about is the hagiography that seems to have taken over the media — something I never anticipated, and which I object to very strongly as it presents a totally misleading picture of how the country as a whole feels about Thatcher. In that respect, the BBC’s censoring of Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead strikes me as a literally appalling curtailment of free speech. Not only is the right of the people peaceably to assemble being abridged, apparently so is the right to express an opinion even without assembling. And so even in death, Thatcher’s legacy lives on in the form of concentrating power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.

    As to the current situation with funding for universities:

    Yes, the proximate cause lies with Blair’s government. But you have to look deeper than that for the causes. (And please don’t think that in saying that I am letting Blair’s desperately disappointing government off the hook.)

    More importantly, I think you are hugely underestimating the psychological weight of finishing education with a massive debt. I tell you again that in my own working-class family, it would have been unthinkable for my to go to university on those terms. I don’t know what sort of home you were brought up with (which I admit is shameful given that we’ve been friends for 23 years) but my guess is that it was culturally very different.

    Interesting on Norway.

  26. Another thing that always seems to get forgotten is that students were able to claim both unemployment and housing benefit in their vacations. Grants had actually been eroded by the time I was a student (a few years before Mike), to the point where they were scarcely enough to live on. But they only had to last you through term time. And if anyone had used the phrase “tuition fees” to us, we wouldn’t have had a clue what they were talking about.

    Another thing… it may have been mid-way through the Nineties when a lecturer friend commented to me he’d noticed a change in students. Now they were paying money towards their degrees, they no longer saw lecturers as the intellectual version of personal trainers, but paid employees whose job was to get you through your exams. Subsequently, I think everyone I know in higher education has told me some version of that. Higher education became much more of a commodity, bought to be resold later on the jobs market.

    From what I know of the Scandinavian countries, alas even there the social contract seems to be breaking down. The ‘free schools’ we have now are essentially a Swedish import. I know less people from Norway, though, and it does seem possible they’re the last holdout.

  27. Christopher Brown

    Wow. This has to be the funniest thing I’ve read all day

  28. I adore an ivory tower statement as blithely ignorant as “Some of her policies haven’t had entirely positive outcomes with 30 years of hindsight.” There are communities all over the UK who didn’t need 30 years to come to that conclusion.

    Some people really do need an education in history. Such as Jedge dismissing Thatcher’s opponents as “standing shoulder-to-shoulder with tyrants”. This conveniently forgets that Thatcher herself was one of Pinochet’s biggest fans because his tyranny happened to be convenient for her.

    The so-called Godwin’s Law doesn’t come into it. Godwin’s Law refers to people online comparing someone to Hitler and the Nazis in order to demonise them by the use of hyperbole. Whereas in fact most instances of bringing up Hitler in online arguments have nothing to do with Godwin’s Law but are using the comparator of Hitler not to attack someone’s morality or behaviour but rather to demolish a fallacious argument.

    The very nature of the internet means that there’s no IQ qualification before you can join in. So you’re always finding people making silly assertions which they’ve clearly never thought through. They seem to be the sort of people who’ve got away with this crap all their lives in front of a pissed-up audience of thickos in the pub. For example, I overheard someone saying the day after Thatcher died that “she was the only politician who ever stood up for this country”. That sort of thing may elicit wise nods of approval down the pub but it makes rather less sense when you consider that many of her political opponents at the time had fought in a World War to “stand up for this country”. Perhaps when you’ve been through that sort of experience you’re less willing to believe that people should take second place to ideas.

    When someone comes up with a fallacious argument, the simplest way to demolish it is to extrapolate it to it’s ultimate conclusions. The ultimate in extreme situations or extreme social conditions that most of us are familiar with happens to be Hitler and what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945. So, if you find someone on the internet saying, for example, “a vegetarian will always be morally superior to a meat-eater”, the simplest way to demolish that is to bring up the example of Hitler. Does that mean that you’re comparing all vegetarians to Hitler, or does it simply mean that the original statement was foolish?

    So, when an MP panders to the media by saying something stupid like: “You can admire conviction of belief without admiring the belief itself”, it’s such a facile thing to say that the easiest way to demolish it is to apply it to our standard gauge of extremism and ask whether you could admire Hitler’s conviction without admiring his ideas.

    It ought to have been obvious even to an online community that Mike wasn’t comparing Thatcher to Hitler but was rather extrapolating David Lammy’s logic to its ultimate conclusion. In other words, you can’t separate someone’s strength of conviction from their beliefs. What Britain needed in 1979 wasn’t someone with an unshakeable belief that they were right, it needed someone with the right policies. An ideologue is rarely the right answer for anything. The Labour opposition were just as unshakeably convinced of the rightness of their ideas. I’d be willing to bet that those bitching on here about Mike would soon lose their admiration for mere conviction if they’d been offered a Labour Prime Minister in 1979 who was equally as passionate in his conviction that the UK needed socialist policies to save it. They’d soon be objecting that conviction wasn’t enough.

  29. Here, There and Everywhere

    I’m not sure if you understand what everyone is saying here. Margaret Thatcher’s policies were controversial and socially divisive. I’m not disagreeing with that statement. But I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if someone announced that they were a fervent supporter of Margaret Thatcher during her reign. Why? Margaret Thatcher wasn’t responsible for the brutal and violent slaughter of approximately six million Jews. The staunch proponents of Margaret Thatcher’s beliefs, values and policies are allowed to express their admiration for her because she wasn’t a bloodthirsty and genocidal maniac. You can’t say the same thing about Hitler. Margaret Thatcher’s political beliefs didn’t result in a massive and widespread bloodbath. You’re allowed to disagreed with her militant and conservative stance on a variety of issues. That’s okay! The decision to violate Godwin’s law is callous, insensitive and unforgivable.

  30. Here, There and Everywhere

    Wait a minute! You can’t defend yourself by claiming that your were talking about the decision of Margaret Thatcher’s opponents to compliment her upon her feisty and belligerent attitude. That’s fallacious! Hitler’s beliefs, opinions and ethics were morally repulsive. They were completely and utterly wrong. Margaret Thatcher’s deeds are a completely different kettle of fish. I have to disagree with anyone who claims that her deeds were motivated by the same compelling force that drove Hitler to commit one of the most ghastly and horrible atrocities in the history of mankind. The vast majority of Thatcherites are still civilised and decent people. You can’t say the same thing about Neo-Nazis.

  31. I’m not sure if you understand what everyone is saying here.

    And I, in turn, am quite sure that you do not understand what anyone is saying.

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