Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thatcher Is Dead. Long Live Thatcherism.

Bernard Shaw's play "Caesar and Cleopatra" has a preface titled "Better than Shakespeare". It was Shaw's contention that Shakespeare, a genius in portraying tragedy, failed to understand the heroism of a character like Julius Caesar and therefore his eponymous play on Caesar was flawed. Upon Margaret Thatcher's death many editorials and the redoubtable Paul Krugman have weighed in on her legacy. Almost all liberal magazines and op-ed writers, except the lunatic far left fringe, couched their appreciation of Thatcher in carefully worded statements that were a shame to linguistic clarity. Reagan and Thatcher will remain beloved in the minds of many of their citizens and in the minds of many across the globe. Yet they will remain the least understand by the academia and the ivory tower of preening intellectuals who wallow in the wooly term 'progressives'. They, like Shakespeare, cannot understand or explain the strength of a Reagan or a Thatcher or a J.P. Morgan or a Leland Stanford.

In an interesting parallel Thatcher and Reagan ascended to power in the gap of a year. Both were instrumental in reversing four decades of run away 'progressive' liberalism that yielded economic misery and devastated both countries. Richard Nixon, Republican, gleefully implemented wage controls, sought and recieved the support of the large unions, campaigned for universal healthcare (when Unions did not want it). Nixon is to the left of Obama. Both US and UK were wracked by runaway inflation or the more dangerous stagflation. The arrival of Thatcher and Reagan did not happen in a vacuum. 

A deep bench of conservative intellectuals, especially in the US, mounted the offensive on liberalism. Ayn Rand battled FDR along with H.L. Mencken and others, then followed Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley and finally Milton Friedman. Buckley and Friedman provided the intellectual ballast for conservative revival. Friedman's lectures on public TV, assailing statist Keynesian economics while raising the edifice of free market, provided the intellectual platform for Ronald Reagan. Thatcher schooled herself in Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek. Hayek's 'Road to Serfdom' was a modern classic in economics and a rage in the 50's. Hayek detailed how nations yield to statist fantasies and find themselves in a thralldom.

The day after the first post-war election Churchill, in his own words, 'woke up with a feeling of a sharp stab'. Churchill, who had rescued England and the world from the twin monstrosities of Nazism and fascism was roundly defeated by an England that was tired of being an empire. Churchill, justifiably, was seen as incapable of peacetime rebuilding. Clement Attlee, a liberal, took the helms, liberated India and set England on a course of liberalism for the next 40 years. Along the way the Anglo-French-Israeli misadventure in the Suez canal put paid to any pretension of colonial glory for England. England became a second fiddle to its bigger sibling across the Atlantic.

Until Thatcher became PM there was little difference in economic philosophy between Tory and Labor. The unions had a stranglehold on the economy and practically held the country to ransom as Edward Heath learned at the hands of the miners. 

What was life in UK before Thatcher? A liberal writer writing in the staunchly liberal 'The Guardian' gives a glimpse: "But if today's Guardian readers time-travelled to the late 70s they might be irritated to discover that tomorrow's TV listings were a state secret not shared with daily newspapers. A special licence was granted exclusively to the Radio Times. (No wonder it sold 7m copies a week). It was illegal to put an extension lead on your phone. You would need to wait six weeks for an engineer. There was only one state-approved answering machine available. Your local electricity "board" could be a very unfriendly place. Thatcher swept away those state monopolies in the new coinage of "privatisation" and transformed daily life in a way we now take for granted."

In another curious parallel both Reagan and Thatcher faced down crippling strikes and broke down the unions. Thatcher had her miners strike in her second term and Reagan had the PATCO strike in his first term. Both strikes were led by greedy unions willing to prove they were militant unions. Reagan fired the entire PATCO union. The miners lost broad public sympathy with their arsonous streak. Organized labor never recovered from those death blows. Both countries, thanks to that, have since prospered.

Between Thatcher and Reagan it was Thatcher who found the words to taunt socialists: "you want to make the poor poorer as long as the rich are less rich". Asked if she would do a u-turn on her policies a stout Thatcher retorted "u turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning". "There is no such thing as public money" said she. Yes, its not a revelation or a discovery. But such truths had been forgotten for decades under the assault of liberal Keynesian policies. Truths needed to be re-told and thats what Thatcher did and for that the world owes her gratitude.

It is not for nothing that 'The Economist' called her a 'Freedom Fighter'. Hugo Chavez was mourned by millions across the globe with little regard to how he mismanaged his country and plundered his country's economy, particularly its oil wealth and fashioned himself a ruler for life. Thatcher, as 'Economist' mourned, was the true 'freedom fighter'. She made England anew and left it a better place than when she ascended. Her biography, from a grocer's daughter to the most powerful and longest reigning PM in modern history in UK, is a story of inspiration and awe.

Paul Krugman in his oped 'Did Thatcher turn around Britain' had two graphs. One, showed that UK's GDP relative to France was in decline, year over year, from 1945-79 and then with Thatcher becoming PM, as if on cue, the graph starts rising. It continues till today. Another graph showed the wild gyration of the employment market which starts to decline, decisively, only from 1993 until the financial crisis of 2008. In fact Thatcher's economy saw an upswing of unemployment. Krugman archly asked 'if it took 20 years for her policies to reap benefit, were they creditable'. I wish he said the same of Obama. Thatcher was reversing the economic decline of nearly 40 years and re-shaping entire segments of the economy. It is bound to disruptive.

Thatcher's reluctance to be drawn into the Euro fantasy cost her the PM chair. Yet as the Euro zone  faces its worst existential crises Thatcher stands vindicated. The Brits owe her a measure of thanks.

Not even Reagan saw the turning of history with Gorbachev as Thatcher did. While Thatcher was not an imperialist in the mould of Churchill her conduct of the Falkland war and joining hands with Reagan to battle Soviet menace brought back England's lost glory. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait Thatcher famously told George H.W. Bush "George, now is not the time to go wobbly".

No obituary of Thatcher was complete without the word 'divisive'. Reagan, on the other hand, was not seen 'divisive' on a similar scale. During the heated 2008 primaries Obama would chide the Clinton era for being 'divisive'. Clinton retorted 'yes. Thats because we fought the fights that had to be fought'. UK was in a deeper mire of liberal nonsense and the entire country was being threatened by unions. Thatcher yanked back the country to life. It is difficult to say if she could have done so with lesser divisiveness. Countering decades of entrenched thinking her laser like opposition to those ideas with very firm articulation of free market could not come across as soothing.

Thatcher and Reagan were the products of an era without whom who knows what course history might have taken in two important countries. Before them nobody thought liberalism could be challenged. After them it was difficult to doubt the blessing of free markets. Both Clinton and Blair were intellectual heirs to Reagan and Thatcher. Clinton, the new-democrat, declared 'the era of big government is over'. Blair re-invented the Labor party and veered away from kowtowing to militant trade unionism. Conservatism was here to stay. When ideological opponents speak your language you have won.

"She and comparisons are odious". Thatcher is dead. Long Live Thatcherism.