Margaret Thatcher: In the Name of Power

“The Iron Lady” paints a human picture of Margaret Thatcher. But the film, which opens Thursday in theaters, ignores her political legacy: her belief in state authority, and her victory over socialism.

March 1, 2012

(Published in German as “Margaret Thatcher: Im Namen der Macht”)

In 2007, I wrote There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. Shortly after the book’s publication, the Great Financial Meltdown began. The global economy is now sunk in a deep, prolonged recession, one so severe in its effects that many are asking whether the Left has been right about free markets all along. Even I have been tempted to wonder.

Of one thing I’m sure: The answer to that question is not to be found in The Iron Lady, starring Meryl Streep. I have not yet seen the movie. The reviews sound promising, but I still feel confident in saying that any appraisal of her contemporary relevance shouldn’t be based upon it. Das Boot was a great movie, after all, but no thinking adult would confuse it with a serious appraisal of the doctrine of unrestricted submarine warfare.

So let us talk about Margaret Thatcher herself, not the movie.

Claims for the enduring historical significance of political figures tend to be made in haste and discarded at leisure. No one doubts that Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt mattered. These assessments were made during their lifetimes; these assessments were correct. That said, Chiang-Kai Shek too once loomed large on the world stage, bustling and strutting, the darling of American conservatives, a fulcrum of great power politics. Professional historians of China apart, who now thinks of Chiang as one of the pivotal figures of human history? No one today would even ask whether Chiang matters. He mattered, once. He does not now.

Margaret Thatcher is still alive. She is vivid in the memories of those who now govern Britain and those who lived through the Thatcher years. She continues to command passionate and polarized emotions. But does she belong among the pantheon of politicians with enduring significance? If so, why?

Let us be candid: In certain ways, she does not matter at all – not then, not now, not ever. Some political figures would be significant even if they had never been political figures at all, so inherently interesting were their personalities. Thatcher was not one of them. Had Benjamin Disraeli failed to acquire power – had he slipped at the base of the greasy pole – we might nonetheless still read biographies of Disraeli with curiosity. It was Disraeli, in fact, who bequeathed to us the description of political life as a greasy pole, and even those who cannot now quite place his name will recognize those words: He has by virtue of his literary gifts, his intellect, his refinement, his wit and his exuberant glitter insinuated himself into our collective cultural memory. This could be said as well of William Gladstone – or of Churchill, for that matter. But it is not among these men that Margaret Thatcher must be placed. She would have been ill at ease. Failing to command their obedience, she would have been uninterested in their company.

Before acquiring power, Margaret Thatcher was nothing. She was trained as an industrial chemist. Her political style was notable chiefly for its doggedness. No one would have marked her as a distinctive British personality or the embodiment of the British national will. It was her power – and what she did with it – that made her personality interesting. In this, she was more like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson than like Reagan: A creature put in this world to acquire power and then to use it.

Yet all the same – unlike Nixon or Johnson – Thatcher has become larger than life.

If it wasn’t the inherent interest of her personality, what was it?

Almost to the last, the political figures who matter – and those who become larger than life – have two gifts. First, they are able clearly to perceive the gathering of historical forces even when those forces remain opaque to their contemporaries. Second, when given power, they are able to master those forces. History is littered with leaders who could do neither, or who could do one but not the other. They are the ones who do not matter.

Chiang perceived the forces of history. He could not master them. He does not matter. Churchill perceived them and he mastered them. He matters. Churchill spotted Hitler with his entourage in 1933; he immediately remarked in his diaries that Hitler was “glittering with intelligence.” Hitler was at the time widely regarded outside of Germany as a buffoon. Thereafter Churchill was steadfast in his warnings: He perceived the nature of the menace when others could not or would not. When at last Churchill acquired power, he discharged his responsibilities in such a fashion as to gain him immortality. When politicians matter, they matter inevitably because of such a gift.

Thatcher perceived – as did many of her contemporaries – that Britain was in decline. But she also perceived – unlike her contemporaries – that this was neither irreversible nor inevitable. At the same time, she sensed a tide in the affairs of men that with the exception of Reagan, no other political leader in the Western world sensed at all. She understood that the Soviet Union was far from the invulnerable colossus others imagined. It was, instead, unable to satisfy the needs of its own population, corrupt, moribund, and doomed.


She then reversed these trends in Britain; proving both that a country can be ripped from a seemingly over-determined trajectory and that it takes only a single lucky figure with an exceptionally strong will to do so. At the same time, she struck blow after blow at the Soviet Empire, contributing ultimately to its downfall.


The very greatest politicians all see something about the very nature of political (and social) life, some set of enduring and unchanging truths, which for the most part are simply hidden from other politicians. Both Thatcher and Reagan saw that the Soviet Union was just rotten; they worked to bring it down. But even though they were the only politicians to see this, this insight was simply a matter of better judgment, and so routine.

The thing that makes Margaret Thatcher an elemental figure is more often overlooked. It is this: What Thatcher saw—and perhaps she was never able to express this properly—was that the alternative to the nation-state really is anarchy, and that contrary to the entire tradition of Rousseau, anarchy is a dreadful condition.

Since the 17th century, the political science of the Western world has been divided into two fundamentally different views of political life, and because there is properly speaking no such thing as political science, these views are expressed as parables about the state of nature. Two quotations reveal the stark difference between these views. The first is from Hobbes: “The life of man in the state of nature,” he wrote, “is solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.” The second is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere is in chains.”

These sentences have haunted world history for more than four hundred years. Writing amid the horror of the English Civil War, Hobbes in Leviathan offered a diagnosis of the ills he perceived. These ills, he wrote, arose in the absence of government, and in particular, in the absence of a government powerful enough to overawe men who would otherwise be fractious and dominated by self-interest.

Leviathan is often taken as a defense of absolutism in political life, but a close study of what Hobbes wrote suggests little to encourage this view. It is instead a defense of a central and commanding power in political life. Whether that power is modulated by democratic means or controlled by the subtle checks and balances of a sophisticated political system was to Hobbes a matter of indifference. The crucial choice was this: anarchy or power. And since, as he could plainly see, anarchy was awful, he chose power.

The Leviathan that Hobbes envisaged was the nation-state. It is a Leviathan because it controls – in theory, at least – a monopoly on the instruments of violence. Leviathan remains to this day a critical justification for the existence and the primacy of the nation-state – a primacy Thatcher sought instinctively and ferociously to preserve. It is a remarkable irony that Hobbes is widely seen as providing a defense of absolutism in political life, for the historical trail between his thought and the terrible evils of the 20th century is almost impossible to discern. Neither Lenin, nor Stalin, nor Hitler, nor Mao thought in his terms; and they did not justify their rule by an appeal to a state of nature in which men would find themselves enemies to one another.

These were men, instead, who had read Rousseau.

A vital currant of energy passes between Rousseau’s sunny view of the state of nature and the great and awful events that followed, beginning with the Terror and ending with the Gulag. Rousseau’s views suggest a series of syllogisms. If man is born free yet remains in chains, men of political will must act to free them from their chains. If these chains are imposed by governments, these chains must be snapped. If these chains must be snapped, violence must be employed. Obviously, it must be; otherwise men would free themselves. And if violence must be employed, it must be employed without restraint. Every revolutionary movement from the 18th to the 21st century has seen the logic of this position: It is inexorable.

I do not believe Thatcher was a careful student of Hobbes. In fact, to judge from her autobiography, she misunderstood him. Raisa Gorbachev, apparently, displayed an interest in the copy of Leviathan on Thatcher’s bookshelf during her visit to Chequers; Thatcher worried this might signify that Mrs. Gorbachev was a particularly hard-line communist. But even if she did not properly understand what Hobbes meant, Thatcher was, herself, in his school. The nation-state, she believed, must exist. It must possess a monopoly on violence. Its authority must not be compromised either from the inside, by groups such as the National Union of Mineworkers, or the outside, by transnational bodies such as the European Union.

Thatcher’s career may be viewed as a series of rebukes to those who would seek to diminish the authority of the nation-state. She is thus not only one of the great enemies of socialism, but of anarchy, as well.

This is the essential way she matters.

Is this idea still relevant? Just have a look at the world. Where there is no strong central authority, things are just awful. Look at the Middle East; look at Africa. Above all look at Europe, where the power of very many ancient nation states has, just as Thatcher feared, been diluted in favor of the European Union. The result in Europe is not some agreeable post-modern entity, but a structure so weak and feckless that—God help us—some in Europe are now seriously asking not only whether fascism and communism could return, but if they should.

Contrary to myth, Thatcher was not initially hostile to the European Union project; in fact, she was originally a passionate Europhile. She supported the common market and integration into the European Economic Community. She campaigned against members of her own party who opposed it.

It was not until midway through her tenure in office that she became persuaded that the original goals of the EEC had been supplanted by the goals of the EC: to wit, forming a European superstate that would inaugurate government by bureaucracy and erode national sovereignty. Her speech at Bruges was, as her foreign secretary Charles Powell put it to me, “like Martin Luther nailing his theses to the wall.” It was received with about as much enthusiasm by faithful believers in the European project, and it was the cause of her downfall. But clearly, she has been proven right.

The European constitution is some 265 handsome pages, forty times the length of the American Constitution, unreadable, uninspiring, and an absolute tour de force of bureaucratic jargon. The European Court of Auditors rejected the EU’s accounts for 13 straight years, and this was reported before the discovery that pretty much every bank in Europe had been cooking its books, which for some reason took everyone by surprise.

Thatcher described this quite accurately in her 2002 book Statecraft: “You only have to wade through a metric measure or two of European prose, culled from its directives, circulars, reports, communiqués or what pass as debates in its ‘parliament,’ and you will quickly understand that Europe is, in truth, synonymous with bureaucracy. It is government by bureaucracy for bureaucracy … The structures, plans, and programs of the European Union are to be understood as existing simply for their own sake … It is time for the world to wake up to it; if it is still possible, to stop it.”

Erosion of national sovereignty? That was the point. The Commission’s rulings are intended to supersede those made by the elected officials of the member states. Although the European parliament is elected directly by the citizens of member countries, the vastly more powerful Commission is not elected at all.

It is pretty clear now, is it not, why it might be a problem to shift power from member states to Brussels in such arenas as immigration, defense, security, commercial policy, humanitarian aid, sport, space, climate change, tourism, investment and energy? It all sounded fine until everyone in Europe remembered that they didn’t, in fact, have the same views about these matters, and didn’t even like each other all that much, and besides, they were going broke and going broke fast. Article III-294 of the Lisbon Treaty prohibits dissent: “Member States shall support the common foreign and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity.” One financial crisis put that Utopian idea to bed.

Bad ideas never really die. The appeal of socialism in particular as a political program is wide, seductive and enduring. So it will always be. Wherever men are miserable – and that is almost everywhere – they will be easy prey for those who promise Utopia, be it of a secular or religious form. You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it,” Thatcher famously said, and of course she was right. So carry on.

She fought the battle against very large and very bad ideas and won—for a while. The ideas are still bad, and they’re still around. That is why she matters.

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