From free markets to low tax, and a smaller state, Thatcher made privatisation a global brand, but was undone by deregulation.
Margaret Thatcher was unique among British political leaders, raised amid pragmatic traditions and an instinctive distaste for all-embracing ideological prescriptions that appealed to many fellow Europeans. She gave her name to an “ism” which became a recognisable, if controversial, export around the world as governments struggled to modernise their societies.
What exactly was Thatcherism? Her original campaign marketing man, Maurice Saatchi, the advertising mogul and now chairman of her CPS thinktank, had no doubt after news of her death: “She developed all the winning arguments of our time – free markets, low tax, a small state, independence, individuality, self-determination. The result was a revolution in economic policy and three election victories in a row.”
Saatchi could have added defence of national sovereignty – against Brussels and Buenos Aires – abroad underpinned by strong anti-communism. In the 80s it looked more like assertive 19th-century liberalism than worldly, sceptical Toryism of the moderate and paternalistic British variety.
But Thatcher took the slow implosion in the turbulent 70s of the postwar social democratic settlement – in its prime it embodied economic consensus, a cradle-to-grave welfare state and near-full employment – as her mandate to reimpose the disciplines and what she saw as the morality of markets. For a time Thatcherism carried all before it and UK “privatisation” became a global brand. Winning the cold war at Ronald Reagan’s side was a bonus.
Rare in politics, Thatcher “changed the weather” and all subsequent prime ministers have operated in her long shadow. By the time the Thatcherite pendulum swung to self-destruction when reckless gambling by the deregulated financial sector crippled economies across the west – and accelerated the rise of China at America’s expense – its author was too frail to appreciate the irony. Her supporters were unrepentant, her critics unforgiving.