It’s Still Thatcher’s Britain, Other Politicians Just Live In It

Leo Panitch is appalled by UK Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband’s public embrace of “responsible capitalism”:

The fact is that the leaders of erstwhile socialist parties have been talking the talk of responsible capitalism for a very long time. It was how they covered their tracks as they retreated from offering people a way out of the rat race of capitalism – rather than compensation for being losers in it – even in the postwar era. Those who imagine that the progressive reforms achieved in that era stand as proof today that a responsible capitalism is possible are sorely mistaken. On the contrary, the undoing of those reforms after just a few decades shows that a responsible capitalism is indeed a contradiction in terms…Ordinary people recognise it for the doublespeak it is. And if they are not offered a positive vision and plan for a renewed democratic socialism that embodies cooperation rather than competition as the basis of social life – if they are not offered, that is, any alternative to capitalism – they will increasingly cling to whatever toehold they have within it at the expense of the “others”.

That even the son of Ralph Milliband is fleeing his socialist roots is another demonstration that Margaret Thatcher remains the defining figure in the recent history of British politics, and not just because she slammed the Overton Windowpane shut on the fingers of so many leftist politicians then and continues to do so now. In the nearly quarter century since she left office, the ensuing PMs haven’t had anywhere near as much impact on British society, whether one judges them individually or as a group. Yes, in public, the opponents of those PMs dutifully shrieked that each was implementing enormous and catastrophic changes, but in private, the same people would have admitted that the alterations were minor compared to those undertaken by The Iron Lady.

It is hard for Americans to appreciate how broadly Britons of Panitch’s generation endorsed socialism and how profoundly its principles shaped the British economy (especially through trade unions) and political system when Thatcher came to power. Some of British socialism’s legacy, particularly many of the nationalized industries, was destined for the dustbin of history in any event with the advent of the global economy, but much of it she personally, gleefully crushed. Ed Milliband is smart enough to know that if he ran on a 1970s-style anti-capitalist platform, he would be crushed in similar fashion, and it’s hard to believe that Panitch doesn’t know that too.

Two lessons for Americans. First, although Ronald Reagan is correctly recalled as a transformative U.S. President, he was governing a much more conservative country than Thatcher. Reagan’s triumphs over leftists in the U.S. were thus both easier and more popular than those of Thatcher (She remains deeply loathed by a significant minority of the country, especially as one moves north). She shouldn’t therefore be cast, as she sometimes is by Americans, as a lapdog or knockoff version of Reagan: Potent a politician as he was, she was moreso. Second, surveying the current gridlock between a Democratic President and a Republican House of Representatives, many people conclude that it would be much easier to implement sweeping political changes in the U.S. if we had a parliamentary system like the U.K. But in the past six decades, Thatcher is the only British Prime Minister who set the limits of acceptable political discussion for decades after her time in office and who implemented political changes that will be broadly studied and debated by historians a century from now.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.