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Thatcher's Militant Democracy

Unlike Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who has a reputation for only sticking her neck out when confident of victory, Margaret Thatcher sometimes had little choice in the timing of the battles she had to fight.

The invasion of the Falkand Islands in 1982 was one of those moments. A war so far from home could easily have gone horribly wrong, and many in her Conservative Party felt uneasy about military action. One supporter in Parliament suggested that they should simply "let the Argentinians have the Falklands with as little fuss as possible."

In sending a Royal Navy task force 8,000 miles to recover the islands by force, despite the efforts of her ally Ronald Reagan to find a diplomatic solution, she drew a line in the sand on a point of principle. Even the special relationship with Washington would come a poor second to defending the national interest and fighting the enemies of democracy. Thatcher felt this principle applied just as much at home as in a conflict against a military dictatorship off the coast of South America.

In 1970s Britain, where being an entrepreneur was tantamount to a badge of shame, she rejected the cosy relationship that had endured for decades between government and organized labor - the trade union movement. Governments of both parties had got used to an industrial policy where the country's economic fate was decided between politicians and union bosses over beer and sandwiches in Downing Street. By the 1970s, this approach had led to three day working weeks, national power cuts, and the British government running to the IMF for loans.

Thatcher believed the country could do better and saw who was to blame. "I hate the closed shop," she scrawled in blue felt tip over a policy document once, referring to the practice which forced workers in many jobs to join a trade union. The word 'hate' was underlined three times, a foretaste of the fierce industrial struggles which lay ahead.

The grocer's daughter from Grantham, a small Lincolnshire town, had learnt about thrift and hard work from her father. She had also read F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, sharing his view on the inseparability of economic liberty and political freedom. It was these influences which came to the fore in the fight against any enemies, foreign or domestic, who she saw as being anti-democratic. But unlike the surprise with the Falklands, there was more time to prepare for the conflict with the trade unions that she knew was coming.

Anticipating that rising unemployment might lead to social unrest, her government implemented huge pay rises for police officers, ensuring the support of those who would be on the front line if industrial tension erupted into violence.

When the inevitable conflict came in 1984, it was the National Union of Mineworkers and its Marxist leader Arthur Scargill that ended up on the receiving end of Thatcher's uncompromising version of the militant democracy. Karl Lowenstein's concept from the 1930s, which was effectively codified in the post-war German constitution, held that liberal democracies could not simply remain neutral bystanders when it came to internal factions which threatened them existentially. The 'paradox of tolerance' would simply ensure, as one of Thatcher's favourite philosophers, Karl Popper put it, that "unlimited tolerance would lead to the disappearance of tolerance." She needed no convincing.

The miners' strike collapsed after a year of industrial conflict which saw miners and police fighting running battles across the coalfields of Yorkshire. Thatcher's triumph was a hammer blow to the power of the trade unions which could now face a sequestration of their assets if they failed to hold democratic ballots of their members before calling strikes.

In the end, it was the internal enemies in her party rather than her country that brought her down. Her refusal to compromise her anti-European position sowed the seeds of her demise among colleagues out to save their electoral skins. Although the Conservative Party narrowly won the General Election in 1992 under John Major, the Thatcher years were the high point for the Tories. None of her successors have ever come close to winning as many seats in Parliament as she did.

Her conviction politics shattered a consensus which had held for decades regarding the primacy of the state in Britain's economic policy. The unofficial consensus was that Britain was a country in decline, which might sometimes be managed but never reversed. Thatcher felt otherwise.

Asked once whether she believed in consensus, she said that she did.

"But it should be a consensus behind my convictions," she added.