Margaret Thatcher – Right About Nearly Everything By Niall Ferguson


Just before sitting down to right this review I listened to the news.  A delivery company went bust on Christmas Day.  The venture capital firm that owned it no doubt calculated that this was the most advantageous point in the year to go bust.  The positive cash flow of the festive season would have swelled the money in the bank giving them plenty of scope for spending it in creative ways before the receivers moved in.  It wasn’t such good timing for the workers who found out that they were out of work via the media.  One twist was that the distinctive green and yellow vans were not all owned by the company.  Many were owned by the drivers who were technically self employed, subcontracting their services.  So that will cut the redundancy bill.   In other news it turns out that the UK is poised to regain its economic position ahead of France in the size of the economy.

Both these stories inevitably brought to mind the figure of Margaret Thatcher.   The very existence of private mail firms was down to the policies her government pursued.  These were justified  on the grounds that they would be more efficient than a state run monopoly.  And what is this about the French economy being bigger than the British one?  Hadn’t Thatcher’s reforms made us much more competitive and stronger than those corporatists over the Channel?

The reality is of course that the Thatcher reforms were a disaster for the UK’s economy from which it has taken decades to recover.  Much of this was down to simply not running things very well on a day to day basis.  She was a terrible manager of her party and nobody who lived through her last months in Downing Street can be under any illusion that she simply wasn’t up to the job.   Her MPs could stand her no longer, and her cabinet was in more or less open revolt.  Few  UK political leaders have stirred up so much opposition from their colleagues.  None since the war have had stirred up so much animosity from the public.  The Poll Tax riots were the only time local government finance led to pitched battles in London between protestors and the police.  It is worth remembering that the poll tax was supposed to be a vote winner and was brought in in Scotland early because the Conservatives had a popularity problem there.  Some political genius that was.

Her biggest idea was the one that has done the most damage and taken the longest to die.  Although the selling off of natural monopolies run by the state like railways and utilities have never been popular with the public – who show a good deal better grasp of economics than the professionals do – they have appealed to investors who appreciate a secure return.  The rich and powerful rarely find it difficult to secure politicians and journalists who will sing the songs they like to hear.  I can’t actually think of any state asset of any size now left to sell.  The most recent was the most venal of the lot.  The Post Office was sold off at a discount so large it looked more like a Stuart monarch dispensing a monopoly to a favourite than an exercise in popular capitalism.   The tv advert campaigns of the eighties encouraging small savers to buy shares in British Gas seem like a different age.  But they are part of the same process.

As I said, the rich and the powerful can always rely on support, and Niall Ferguson is a good example.  But I have to confess that he is a cut above the average establishment shill.  He writes well, and usually has an interesting angle.  I always find what he says entertaining and often challenging.  I respect him as an historian and even his right wing bias is worn so openly that you can hardly hold it against him.  And as an historian,  he no doubt realises that history is not proving kind to his hero Margaret Thatcher.  As we look back with the perspective that comes from, knowing what happened next the question is shifting.  It is no longer a question of whether she was the worst post war premier, and more trying to work out just how bad she was.  This is the context to this recent book – though it is more of a pamphlet in size if such a format still existed.

Niall weighs in with the skill of a rhetoritician.  His first tactic is to anchor the argument where he wants it by asserting that Thatcher was right about nearly everything.  This indeed is the title.  It is a bold move, but a foolish one.  We all know she was wrong about nearly everything, so the tactic backfires by getting the reader’s back up from page one.  The next area is the most tricky.  Ferguson is an economic historian and simply can’t ignore the numbers.  The British economy under Thatcher suffered from an unholy combination of poor short term tactics and misguided long term strategy.  The numbers looked bad at the time and have not mellowed with age.  They were so bad that even economists noticed, and sent a letter to the PM pleading for a change of course.  Ferguson simply redefines the problem.  What we should be looking at he asserts, isn’t how well off people were but how well investors were doing.  Returns on the businesses that managed to stay in business during the period when the Howe budget cut demand in the economy were impressive.  That was sort of what a lot of people at the time were complaining about.  Ferguson explains that you need to judge Thatcher not by her effect on society but by her effect on capital.  She needs to be judged by capitalist standards not socialist ones.

It was an argument I had heard before.  That was exactly what the Socialist Worker newspapers that were on sale in the streets in the eighties said at the time.  It is a partisan way of looking at the world, and a zero sum one.  Is it really impossible to contrive things so that private companies and society as a whole thrive simultaneously?  Indeed, is it realistic to aim for anything else?

Ferguson gets off the economy and onto social and foreign affairs as quickly as possible.   It is harder to be sure of things here, so this is where the bulk of his defence is deployed.   Thatcher is portrayed not as the down to earth social conservative she must have seen herself as, but as a punk.  There is some strength to this.  She certainly stirred things up by becoming the first woman prime minister.  And she got a lot closer to bringing anarchy to the UK than Johnny Rotten managed.   Britain certainly changed a lot under her premiership, and not all of it was for the bad.  But I don’t think you can praise someone for unintended consequences.  He goes out of his way to defend her from the charge of believing that there was ‘no such thing as society’.   She was misunderstood there, and I think that is a perception that should be corrected.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit in with the notion of Thatcher as pioneering radical and so somewhat weakens his overall argument.

Foreign policy is often seen as a strength of Thatcher’s government.  There is no reason that automatically means that a government that was economically incompetent shouldn’t handle other responsibilities better or even well.  Speaking personally, I’d be happy to argue that Thatcher wasn’t wrong about everything if only to show that I am prepared to be balanced.   Few people are without some redeeming features and you appear churlish if you are not prepared to acknowledge them.  Unfortunately redeeming features are in short supply in this case.   Her opposition to German reunion annoyed a powerful partner without achieving any balancing benefit.  There is something to be said for stridently standing up for one’s country’s interests in the EU, but you really need to do that before rather than after signing a treaty conceding more power to the EU.   Even the special relationship with the US couldn’t stop the invasion of the British dependency of Grenada.  The funniest Punch front cover ever showed Reagan and Thatcher in the roles of Reb Butler and Scarlet O’Hara with the punchline ‘frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’.

In the end this book does the opposite of what it sets out to do.  If even a partial and skilled supporter cannot make a case that stands up in her defence.  She was not a hugely successful social radical striding the world stage and shaking up a sleepy country.  She was an out of her depth social conservative oblivious to the forces she was unleashing around herself and not well prepared for the changes that the world was delivering regardless.

I never met Margaret Thatcher.  I am just an ordinary member of the public, why should I have done?  But I wish I had.  I doubt she would have been anything like her public image.   I wonder if she was a lot more sympathetic to actual human beings she encountered than her image would suggest.  People who put on a tough face for the world are often have soft centres.   But I am quite sure she was nothing like the image that Niall Ferguson has tried to conjure up.

3 thoughts on “Margaret Thatcher – Right About Nearly Everything By Niall Ferguson

  1. Hi Colin – for your info

    The 12 Best History Books Of 2014
    // Peter Schiff

    If you’re looking for a compelling story to start off the new year, why not opt for a true tale?

    Amazon recently announced its list of the best history books of 2014, and it’s filled with in-depth stories that shaped the United States, from the founding of the first west coast colony in 1810 to what really happened in Benghazi in 2012.

    Go ahead — dive headfirst into the past.

    1. “Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard: The latest addition to O’Reilly’s series of books explaining famous murders explores the death of General George S. Patton, Jr, who died mysteriously shortly after World War II. O’Reilly examines the circumstances around his death, which many suspect wasn’t an accident.

    2. “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson: What makes an entrepreneur disruptive? Where does creativity come from? Isaacson analyzes the personalities throughout history that led the digital revolution, all the way from mathematicians in the 1840s to modern standouts, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

    3. “In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette” by Hampton Sides: In 1879, the USS Jeanette left San Francisco headed for the unexplored North Pole with captain George Washington de Long at the helm. However, the ship quickly became trapped in ice, forcing the crew to abandon it two years in and continue their treacherous arctic journey on foot.

    4. “Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson” by S. C. Gwynne: This book takes an in-depth look at the life and career of Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate Civil War general who is often considered one of the greatest American military figures of all time. More than just his military accomplishments, Gwynne also dives into Jackson’s personal life, explaining his rise to power in the South.

    5. “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright: Wright gives a play-by-play account of the 13-day conference at Camp David between President Jimmy Carter, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and Eygptian president Anwar Sadat in 1978. During the meeting, the three leaders created and signed the first peace treaty in the Middle East, which is still in use today.

    6. “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal” by Ben Macintyre and John Le Carre: During the Cold War, Kim Philby rose to prominence in Britain as the head of counterintelligence against the Soviet Union. However, Philby was secretly working for the Soviets, transmitting everything he learned back to Moscow, a secret unbeknownst to even his closest friends.

    7. “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China” by Evan Osnos: As the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, Osnos has a firsthand look at everyday life in China, including political and economic upheaval as the Communist Party struggles to stay in control. In this account, Osnos chronicles the lives of China’s everyday citizens through this period of growth and stress.

    8. “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” by Karen Armstrong: As worldwide violence mounts and religious self-identification slows in the US, Armstrong examines the links between the two, and the effects violence has had on different faiths over time.

    9. “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi” by Mitchell Zuckoff and Annex Security Team: On September 11, 2012 a team of six American security operators fought to protect the US State Department Special Mission Compound and a nearby CIA station attacked by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya. Though the attack made national headlines, details of the night were fuzzy — until now, as the team tells their story to set the record straight.

    10. “Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II” by Vicki Croke: When Billy Williams moved to colonial Burma in 1920, he almost immediately forged a bond with the elephant population, treating their injuries and teaching them to interact with humans. Eventually, he trained the creatures to operate as “war elephants,” carrying supplies and sneaking refugees out of Burma.

    11. “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War” by Karen Abbott: Abbott tells the true stories of four women who went undercover during the Civil War as spies for the Confederacy. The book also includes 39 photographs and three maps to further illustrate these women’s wartime journeys.

    12. “Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival” by Peter Stark: In 1810 — six years after Lewis and Clark started their journey — John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson set out to settle America’s first colony on the west coast. Throughout their three-year journey, the explorers faced both adventure and hardship, and eventually established the path that would become the Oregon Trail.

  2. Great post, I love your takes on British and EU political history. Not a lot of coverage on this side of the pond.

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