The year is 2009 and a new American president is taking office during troubled economic times. Margaret Thatcher also took office in troubled times, but during the campaign her name was seldom invoked. According to Claire Berlinski, an American writer with a doctorate in international relations from Oxford, Margaret Thatcher still matters a great deal, and for a particular reason.
“She matters because she is a woman,” Claire Berlinski writes in “There is no Alternative” Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. “She achieved things that no woman before her had achieved, and she did so in a remarkable fashion, simultaneously exploiting every politically useful aspect of her femininity and turning every conventional expectation of women upside down. In doing so, she refuted several millennia’s worth of assumptions about women, power, and women in power.”
What sort of things, exactly, did Margaret Thatcher achieve?
“She reversed the advance of socialism in Britain, proving both that a country can be ripped from a seemingly overdetermined trajectory and that it takes only a single figure with an exceptionally strong will to do so. She did not single-handedly cause the Soviet empire to crumble, but she landed some of the most devastating punches of the Cold War and, extraordinarily, emerged unbloodied from the fight.”
It was indeed a fight, with many casualties, particularly on the home front. The welfare state in Britain had grown apace since World War II. In 1979, Britain lost 29.5 million work days to strikes.
“We don’t want to increase our trade with you,” a Soviet trade official told his British counterpart. “Your goods are unreliable, you’re always on strike, and you never deliver.” As the author also notes, Britain had become the first country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to “supplicate” for a loan from the International Monetary Fund. This was the legacy of socialism in Britain. Enter Margaret Thatcher, whose profile was different.
“She believed in free markets, popular capitalism, property ownership, privatization, monetarism, firm control over public expenditures, low taxation, and individualism. She was an ardent patriot and nationalist. She deplored socialism and considered welfare spending and collective bargaining to be forms of it. She particularly despised powerful trade unions and was leery of international organizations. She saw nothing to admire in the Soviet Union and much to admire in America.”
“There is no Alternative” charts the battles of the Prime Minister with “King Arthur,” Arthur Scargill, head of the minor’s union and an outright Stalinist, as Ms. Berlinski shows. There is much here that one will not learn watching CNN or reading the New York Times. The account of the Falkland Islands war is particularly good.
Britain is now the richest country in Europe, with the most efficient labor market, and London is, once again, the world’s financial capital. “Thatcher is widely perceived to be the reason for this,” Ms. Berlinski explains, noting Tony Blair’s celebrated claim that “We are all Thatcherites now,” and current Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s description of himself as a politician in her mold. Ms. Berlinski, however, is astute enough to know that even though key battles have been won, the war is not over.
“Margaret Thatcher was one of the most vigorous, determined, and successful enemies of socialism the world has known,” she explains. Socialism, however, is “a political movement that like fascism embodies the religious impulse in secular form, and is thus an ideology destined to rise again and again from the grave, skeletal claws outstretched and grasping for the instruments and subjects of labor.”
Ms. Berlinski, who lives in Istanbul, argues that “Socialism is the real message of the anti-globalization movement,” and that “the forces that Thatcher confronted are one and the same as the forces that in 1999 led to the imposition of martial law in Seattle.”
Margaret Thatcher “perceived these forces, and for a time she mastered them. That is why she matters to history. These forces are still at work; they must again be mastered. That is why she matters to you.”
The author knows that Margaret Thatcher had little use for feminists but doesn’t explain why they had little use for her. As we have noted in the Contrarian, feminism, particularly the Betty Friedan-Gloria Steinem brand, is the women’s auxiliary of socialism, and Margaret Thatcher was a successful opponent of socialism, in theory and practice. That earned her the wrath of the very people who should have praised her for her career choices alone.
As the author notes, “when she subsequently decided to become a lawyer, she qualified after only two years of part-time study, all the while working full-time as a research chemist and assiduously seeking election to Parliament and getting pregnant – with twins, no less. She passed the bar exam only weeks after giving birth.”
As Margaret Thatcher herself put it, “Some of us were making it before Women’s Lib was even thought of.”
I agree with Claire Berlinski that Margaret Thatcher was “enormously significant” and that “she changed the world, and mostly for the better.” I see no “alternative” to Lady Thatcher on the current scene, but perhaps Ms. Berlinski’s spirited book will inspire somebody to become one.